Red lights won’t be run for these waiting mothers, but the journey to deliver their precious bundles carries its own adventure, says Alissa Jenkins.
Ask any first-time mum about the trials of bringing life into this world, and her answer will likely involve the words ‘pain’, ‘worry’ and ‘rush to the hospital’.
Now imagine if the mad dash to the birthing suite involved a 2500-kilometre marathon. For expectant mothers of the loggerhead sea turtle species, that’s precisely what it can be.
“These endangered turtles could have taken up residence as far away as New Guinea or New Caledonia,” says Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Ranger, Shane O’Connor.
“But they’re born with an inbuilt GPS, which is tuned into nature’s magnetic field. Once they reach 30 years they’ll migrate from wherever they are, back to the area they were born – that’s where they will nest.”
Our group of 30 turtle enthusiasts is quietly waiting in the evening darkness on Mon Repos Beach – 14 kilometres east of Bundaberg on Queensland’s sub-tropical central coast – looking out for one such mother to be. As the largest loggerhead turtle rookery in the South Pacific, it doesn’t take long before we spot one, spooning her way up the shore.
“If she’s a new mum, she could dig quite a few nests before she settles on one to lay her eggs,” whispers O’Connor, turning off his torch so as not to disturb her.
This is not an uncommon sight in Mon Repos Conservation Park. French for ‘my rest’, Mon Repos is not only a renowned hotspot for loggerheads, but for green and flatback turtles who too return each year between November and March to produce their next generation.
“There are two main reasons for Mon Repos being an ideal location for loggerhead nesting. Firstly, there’s a headland at the southern end of the beach which protects it from south easterly winds, meaning less erosion and a safer environment for eggs,” explains O’Connor.
“Secondly, the latitude here provides the most suitable incubation temperatures for egg development during the summer nesting season.”
As a result, Mon Repos has been at the centre of research and conservation project to help these endangered creatures since 1968 – spearheaded by local royalty, Dr Col Limpus.
Trowelling fin-fulls of sand behind her, tonight’s shelled star appears to have finished laying her eggs in record time. Following a signal from O’Connor, our group quietly approaches. She’s a beauty. Her mosaic shell alone spans over a metre wide while her big brown eyes remain firmly fixed on the waterline ahead.
“She looks quite young, possibly a first time mother,” he inspects, removing some of the barnacles that have made themselves at home on the crown of her head.
“But what could be a concern is that she’s finished in 45 minutes – that’s unheard of.”
Considering the nesting process typically takes upwards of an hour-and-a-half, this speedy attempt could be the result of a parasitic infection in the brain, which causes a turtle to jumble up her natural instincts when nesting. To see if she is indeed unwell and in need of treatment, O’Connor delicately unearths her eggs.
The curious thing about where a turtle lays her eggs is that the temperature of the sand affects the gender of the hatchling – cooler sand produces boys, while warmer sand produces girls. Given the dark, gritty sand here on Mon Repos has a tendency to trap more heat, girls dominate local hatchlings.
Even more remarkable is that not all of these eggs will be fertilised by the same male: the female loggerhead is a crafty character, able to store the sperm of various lovers.
“Females have the ability to store the sperm of several males for a number of months and will travel through a courtship area on their migration swim,” huffs O’Connor, lining up rows of the shiny golf balls, plucked from the sand. “This means that she is not required to seek a male to fertilise each clutch of eggs prior to laying.”
What a woman! Once her nest is cleared, the eggs are counted.
“One hundred and one!” beams O’Connor – she’s not sick, just speedy.
“She’s got places to go and people to see,” he jokes. “There’s no time to spare, just like any other modern day mum.”
How you can plan to see sea turtles:
The details: Mon Repos
Getting there: Mon Repos is about 350 kilometres north of Brisbane, then a further 14 kilometres east of Bundaberg. From mid-October to the end of April, public access to Mon Repos Beach is restricted from 6pm to 6am to protect nesting turtles and hatchlings.
Cost: Bookings are essential and can be made via Bundaberg Visitor Information Centre. Tours operate from 7pm nightly between November to late March. Fees apply: $5.85 for children, $11.25 for adults or $26.90 for a family. Tour fees contribute to visitor and habitat management for the conservation and protection of marine turtles.
Need to know: Nesting turtles are best viewed after dark from mid-November to February, while turtle hatchlings are best viewed from January until mid- to late-March also after dark. However, turtles are wild animals and can nest and hatch at any time, so as you’d expect sightings cannot be guaranteed.