If you go down to Mon Repos Beach tonight you may be lucky enough to watch thousands of 6cm babies scurry across the sand for their first swimming lesson, writes Ewan McDonald.

Turtles are smart. Trust me on this, I live with one. But their eyesight is poor when they're out of the water and they can't read the signs.

On the day I visit Mon Repos Beach at Bargara, on the Bundaberg coast, ranger Shane O'Connor points out the notices saying it's the first day — or rather night — of the turtle breeding season.

The signs advise that access to the 1.6km-long, white-sand beach — pocked with black rocks and edged with scrub — and activities on it, are severely restricted until the end of March.

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For Mon Repos is where hundreds of loggerhead, flatback, green and sometimes leatherback sea turtles nest every year — more than anywhere else on Australia's east coast. It's the most significant loggerhead rookery in the South Pacific.

From November to January, it's the scene of one of nature's most labour-intensive maternity wards; from January to March, it's the birthplace of up to 200,000 hatchlings that will struggle to the sea... and safety. Ironically, the name means "my resting place".

The massive reptiles — mature females can reach 2m long and weigh 160kg — nest along
much of Queensland's coast, laying their eggs in the sand above the high-water mark.

Mon Repos Turtle Centre, run by the state's parks and wildlife service, is the only place where humans can take part in a legal, organised, expertly guided tour to watch this life cycle unfold.

Shane's first rule for the Turtle Experience: book well in advance.

Thirty thousand visitors in a season doesn't sound a lot but tours quickly sell out and numbers for each night are strictly limited and ticket-only.

Mon Repos Turtle Centre is the only place to take part in a legal, organised, guided tour to watch the turtles' life cycle unfold. Photo / Supplied
Mon Repos Turtle Centre is the only place to take part in a legal, organised, guided tour to watch the turtles' life cycle unfold. Photo / Supplied

You'll arrive by 6.45pm. Rangers will explain the turtles' habits and what you're likely to see.

When they've got the word that the turtles have landed, rangers lead groups of 50 people along the boardwalk above the bushes, nests and other animals' burrows, down to the beach in near-darkness and silence.

You'll have to accept that turtles are wild animals. They may not turn up until 2am. Or not at all. Turtles can be strong-willed and stubborn. Trust me, I live with one.

And no, Shane says, there's not a money-back guarantee. But you may have the chance to touch a shell or flipper, have your photo taken with a 220-million-year-old being or watch thousands of 6cm babies scurry across the sand for their first swimming lesson.

Sorry: it's true that turtles tootle off to warmer sea-pastures off Chile and Peru for 30-odd years, but new research says no, females don't return to the beach where they hatched to lay eggs.

Queensland Museum's reptiles expert, Patrick Couper, says: "Turtles imprint to the Earth's magnetic field but the precision of this imprinting is not at a scale that provides accurate imprinting to a specific small beach."

While we're switching from Travel to Science, there's a serious side to Mon Repos.

It's home to the Queensland Turtle Conservation Project, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The project has been led by the state's chief scientist for Environment and Heritage Protection, Dr Col Limpus, for nearly 40 years — originally at his own expense.
From its research, the state government and council are limiting development along the coast because turtles are fazed by artificial lighting.

"They get disoriented, leaving them at risk of foxes and other predators, and they can head towards the roads instead of taking their natural path to the ocean," Shane says.

"Turtle hatchlings have a very low survival rate as it is [only one in 1000 reaches maturity] so it is critical we reduce human interference."

The state government is investing $16 million to upgrade the centre — it looked tired when I visited — and create a year-round ecotourism attraction to raise awareness of the critically endangered creatures' plight.

But there's one issue money can't solve: climate change. This season's heatwave pushed sand temperatures to a record 75C. Thousands of hatchlings made the mistake of leaving the nest during the day and died of heatstroke; temperatures in the nests approached a broiling 34C.

There's more to Mon Repos than turtles. Named for an 1880s homestead, the French Government owned the land from 1890-1925 because their Australia-New Caledonia telegraph cable came ashore here. My old mate Bert Hinkler took off from the beach on historic flights.

A black volcanic rock wall recalls a dark chapter. It was built by Melanesians who worked in the canefields from 1879-1904. They were tricked, kidnapped, shipped here and toiled for little or no pay. The official term was "indentured labour". The unofficial term was "blackbirding". There may be other names for it.

Mon Repos Turtle Centre is the only place to take part in a legal, organised, guided tour to watch the turtles' life cycle unfold. Photo / Supplied
Mon Repos Turtle Centre is the only place to take part in a legal, organised, guided tour to watch the turtles' life cycle unfold. Photo / Supplied

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Qantas

flies daily to Bundaberg, via Brisbane, with return Economy Class flights starting from $799.

DETAILS
For information on the Mon Repos Turtle Centre, go to bundabergregion.org/turtles
ONLINE
queensland.com
WHERE I'D STAY
Bargara is the quintessential Downunder beachside town so there's motor camps to upscale resorts. The Point apartments are a couple of minutes' walk from the shopping centre and pubs and over the road from the beach with marvellous views of the Coral Sea from most balconies. There are one, two and three-bedroom self-catering, self-contained options. The town fills up rapidly most weekends.

WHERE I'D EAT
In the middle of town, across from the beach, Kacy's is a huge, friendly place. The menu is the size of a family Bible: pages of prawns, Moreton Bay bugs, Hervey Bay scallops, barramundi from the Gulf of Carpentaria (my favourite), duck, grain-fed Queensland rump and fillet. Vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free diners are catered for — not a given in rural Australia. The cellar has 2500 wines, as well as chilled beers.