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Turtle watching—experience an ancient ritual

Marine turtles have nested on parts of Queensland's coast for thousands of years.

To watch a marine turtle nest is to gain an insight into one of nature's rituals. But this ritual can easily be disturbed.

A marine turtle can be aged 30-50 before it begins to breed. Combined with this, the breeding season might be once in only two to eight years.

Also, hatchlings have a low chance of survival, with perhaps only one in 1000 possibly reaching maturity.

All these factors make the sea turtle particularly vulnerable to human interference. People's activities have had a substantial impact on all turtle species.

When you go turtle watching, please make sure you follow recommended behaviour around nesting turtles and hatchlings. If you do this, you will enjoy a memorable experience while respecting these animals in their natural habitat.

Where to see turtles

Marine turtles nest on many beaches along the south Queensland coast on most nights from December to February.

Turtles are common on many of the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef and in some sheltered parts of the Queensland coast including Bowling Green Bay south of Townsville, Shoalwater and Corio Bays in central Queensland, Sandy Strait and in east Moreton Bay.

The Capricorn/Bunker Groups of islands on the Great Barrier Reef are one of the world's major breeding areas for green and loggerhead turtles.

North West, Hoskyn and Wreck Islands are the most important green turtle nesting areas, while Wreck, Tryon, Erskine and Masthead are the most important loggerhead turtle rookeries.

Nearby Bundaberg coast also supports the Pacific region's largest breeding population of loggerhead turtles.

Resorts on Heron Island and Lady Elliot Island and the Heron Island Research Station allow visitors to stay overnight and go turtle watching.

Camping by permit is allowed on Lady Musgrave, Tryon, Masthead and North West Islands. Wreck and Hoskyn Islands are closed to the public.

Near Bundaberg on Queensland's central coast, Mon Repos supports the largest concentration of nesting sea turtles on the east Australian mainland. Nesting turtles at Mon Repos include the loggerhead, flatback, and green. At the peak of a prime nesting season, 20 or more turtles a night (mostly loggerheads) come ashore to nest on this 1.5km long sandy beach.

A good place to see these nesting turtles and emerging hatchlings is Mon Repos Conservation Regional Park or through visiting the Mon Repos Turtle Centre. Bookings are essential and can be made from 1 September through the Bundaberg Visitor Information Centre.

Experienced staff and facilities for turtle watching including an information centre will ensure you get the most from your encounter with a sea turtle at Mon Repos.

Access to the nesting beach at Mon Repos is controlled. This ensures the turtles aren't disturbed.

Bitumen roads provide easy access to the park from Bundaberg and nearby beach resorts. A number of motels and caravan parks are within a few kilometres of Mon Repos.

How to find nesting turtles

Adult marine turtles are timid. Please remember these animals do not leave the sea for most of their lives.

During the nesting process, turtles are easily disturbed by light, noise and movement - particularly when leaving the water, crossing the beach and digging the nest.

Nesting turtles are best seen after dark, from November to January.

Your footwear should be suitable for walking along a sandy beach at night. Carry a rain jacket.

Unless you are at Mon Repos, to find a turtle walk along the beach about high tide mark looking for turtle tracks about one metre wide.

Be prepared to wait. Sometimes a turtle can attempt to come ashore several times in one night.

As the female turtle approaches the shore, she is very easily disturbed and might turn back. Keep clear of her, stand still, wait quietly and don't shine a torch. Her crawl ashore and up the beach can take up to an hour.

To dig the body pit, she will use all four flippers to form a large hole. Wait patiently, stand well back and keep torches off.

Once the pit is finished, she will use her hind flippers to dig out a vertical pear-shaped egg chamber about 60 cm deep. Even now the turtle is still easily disturbed so watch quietly from behind without lights and don't touch her.

Once settled into laying, the turtle isn't disturbed by soft lights. Laying eggs takes 10-20 minutes.

She will then cover her nest with her flippers. Stand clear of flying sand and give the turtle space to complete nesting.

You can now turn on your lights to watch the turtle and take limited flash photos.

Only use a low wattage torch. If at Mon Repos, listen to staff and follow their instructions. They will help you enjoy the experience while looking after the turtles.

As she crawls back to her ocean home, keep your torches off as she can be disoriented by light. You can follow her quietly to the water as long as another turtle isn't coming in to lay.

Please be patient while the turtle performs her nesting ritual which can take several hours. The larger the crowd, the more likely the turtle will be disturbed.

How to find hatchlings

Emerging hatchlings can be seen from mid-January until late March. Hatchlings usually leave their nests at night.

In the nest, hatchlings break from their eggs within a few hours of one another. It takes them about 24 hours to straighten out and leave the eggshell.

As a group, the hatchlings climb upwards in a burst of activity. They breathe the air between the sand grains as they climb. It can take them two days to reach the surface.

Hatchlings usually emerge onto the surface in a rush, mostly at night. It takes them only 5-10 minutes to emerge.

Keep clear of the nest when the hatchlings are emerging. If you are too close, you can push sand into the nest, restricting the progress of hatchlings below.

Keep your lights off at this stage! Torches and lamps can easily disorient hatchlings, hindering their race to the ocean.

Don't bring any pets. Pets are banned on Mon Repos Regional Park.

From the nest, the hatchlings will race down to the ocean. Keep out of their way, don't shine lights at them or use flash photography. If you are at Mon Repos, staff will use lights to illuminate the hatchlings without disorienting them.

Don't handle hatchlings! They are not toys. They are responding to many environmental cues as they cross the beach.

Hatchlings will reach the water in a few minutes. But once there, they can still be attracted to land by lights. If so, they can spend more time near the shore where sharks and fish are major predators. Keep your torches off to make sure they don't come back.

Turtle monitoring

If you see a sea turtle nesting or at sea, please note where and when you saw it. If possible, also try to identify the species and how many turtles you saw.

If you find a sea turtle with a tag clamped on its flipper, write down:

  • the number stamped on the tag
  • when, how and where the turtle was caught or seen
  • what happened to the turtle
  • your name and address.

Don't remove the tag from the turtle unless it has died.

Send this information (with the tag if recovered from a dead turtle) to:
Queensland Turtle Research
Threatened Species Unit
Department of Environment & Heritage Protection
GPO Box 2454
Brisbane Q 4001

Please report all sightings of any sick, injured or dead sea turtles by calling the RSPCA Queensland on 1300 ANIMAL (1300 264 625) at any time.

Last updated
19 January 2016