Voyages Hotels & Resorts
It is very dark, sans moon, and I can’t use my torch because light disturbs the turtles. I have been told I will hear them digging but I wish I knew what to listen for. I am on Heron Island 72 kilometers off the Queensland coast of Australia. It has been a national park since 1943 so the wildlife is protected but I, like the 50 or so other people slipping and sliding along the soft sand in absolute darkness, would probably cheat a little if we came across a turtle. After all, we are hoping to see her laying her eggs.
Then I hear it. Unmistakable, a powerful scraping followed by fluttering as sand flies through the air. I’m about to creep closer when I feel a tap on the shoulder.
“It will be another hour or two before the turtle lays its eggs,” the ranger tells me and the other human shadows clustered around. “You can talk, she can’t hear you, but don’t go in front where she can see you.”
The ranger has been watching this female for about an hour because she wants to collect for research half the 120 eggs the turtle lays. Like children at school, we crouch in a semi-circle piqued that the ranger is there. But she places a dim light behind the turtle so we can see into the chamber and watch her digging. It is a laborious task.
Turtle lays her eggs at night. Queensland Tourism
The great creature has her back half hanging over the chamber and is using her back flippers to scrape and flick out the sand. Occasionally she reaches down to check the size of the chamber, testing it as a mother checks the heat of a child’s bath water. She will be long gone by the time the hatchlings emerge, and if the nest is not built to specific dimensions the young won’t be able
The next morning I return to the beach. All that is left is the deep grooves where the turtle dragged herself over the sand and a rough mound where she covered the chamber.
Turtle Facts and Speculation
Turtle research is still sometimes speculative; however, the accepted theory is that they don’t start breeding until about 50 years old when they return for the first time since birth to the very same spot to lay their own eggs. In fact, they don’t even get sexual organs until in their 40s.
Only breeding every four to six years, they lay three or four clutches of eggs a season, making them highly susceptible to decline or extinction. Only a very small percentage of hatchlings survive the gauntlet of predators to become adults with a probable lifespan of over 100 years.
Hatchlings head for the sea. Queensland Tourism
Both Green and Loggerhead turtles nest on Heron Island. The process is the same with the only difference being the time it takes. Nesting for the Loggerhead can be one to two hours while for the Green it can be up to three hours. A Birder’s Paradise
Nesting Noddy birds. Shirley LaPlanche
It’s matching and hatching time on the island and a pair of irate seagulls screech and swoop down on me. I get the message – I’m obviously standing too close to their ground nest with three eggs!
Seagulls are permanent residents here but through spring and summer another 100,000 birds will arrive to breed. This many birds on an island you can walk around it in 20 minutes means every branch and twig has a bird on it. You quickly learn that a hat is worn not merely to protect you from the sun.
The most common bird is the black noddy and there are so many they fight over every fork in every tree. Even if the fork is already occupied, a newly arrived couple will attempt to oust the established family. Nests are an untidy pile of twigs bound with droppings that dribble over the sides like icing on a cake. The single chicks, cute as cartoon characters, peer over the nests with their little white-capped heads identical to their parents. The 300 or so guests ooh and aah up at them, shooting endless rolls of Kodak and Fuji.
Rail chicks are also scampering along after their parents. They can fly but seldom do – I suspect they have worked out there are no predators on the island and crumbs from dining tables eventually make their way to the floor, so why waste energy flying.
Shearwaters build nests in sand burrows. Shirley LaPlanche
Heron Island’s Unique Eco-Microcosm
Heron is not an island as most people understand islands, but a coral cay formed from the remains of animals and plants that once inhabited its reef. The ocean crushes the skeletons and rubble until there is enough sediment for a few hardy plants to grow. Leaves and branches from the trees, and seeds and droppings from the birds continue the island’s soil development.
The Pisonia tree provides branches for nests but it also produces a sticky fruit that gums up the birds’ wings. Unable to fly the birds die and their bodies drop to the ground where they provide nutrients for the Pisonia seeds; and thus life goes on. On such a small island, you cannot help but see this life and death cycle in action which can be upsetting, but as in all national parks you are asked not to interfere.
The one resort on the island has naturalist guides who give excellent, free talks on all aspects of island and reef life. It is easier to leave things alone once you understand why Nature must remain in charge here.
About half the guests on Heron are from overseas, attracted here by its prime location on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Diving and snorkelling are always popular, and for those who prefer to keep their feet dry there is always the semi-submersible.
Nine hundred of its 1500 species of fish and 72% of the famous reef’s corals are found around Heron Island. I spend my mornings floating on the water, snorkelling, letting myself drift. The shapes and textures, colors and movements flicker and change below me like the gentle twisting of a child’s kaleidoscope.
Bird’s eye view of Heron Island. Shirley LaPlanche
Diving is a highlight at Heron Island. Voyages Hotels & Resorts
Putting Everything in Perspective
On my last night, I strolled in gentle darkness through gnarled, wind-sculpted forest to the beach. Crouching wedge-tailed shearwaters howled and shuffled out of my path. These amazing little birds that fly half way round the world to get here, have an eerie howl that is often likened to a baby’s cry. To me it sounded like a ghost and goose bumps popped up along my arms. I walked carefully to avoid the burrows where they have laid their single eggs; I think of chicks tucked up for the night.
At the beach we sit and sip sweet Japanese plum wine. The philosophy of the walk is to do it in silence and contemplate our day. I find myself thinking of the piece of starfish on the reef that is growing new tentacles and will soon be whole again, of the warm water against my skin, and of the turtles swimming towards this beach last seen when they were hatchlings 50 years ago.
Follow Up Facts
Turtle season is from November to April; Humpback whales are a migrating highlight from July to October. Though bird watching is a spectacle year round, noddies and shearwaters particularly attract birders from October to May.
Accommodation at Heron Island Resort ranges from turtle cabins with shared facilities to spacious and stylishly appointed suites. All meals are included in the daily rate. It is one of a string of Australian resorts and lodges owned by Voyages Hotels & Resorts, making that company the largest owner-operator of nature-based holiday destinations in Australia, within some of the most unique eco-systems in the world. www.heronisland.com.
Additional Australia Articles: We invite you to visit our other informative feature article about adding a little volunteer service to your Heron Island vacation by participating in a coral bleaching monitoring program. In our web magazine’s collection, there are also nature and active adventure destination articles about South Australia’s unique Kangaroo Island, and an annual multi-day senior-friendly bicycle adventure in the state of Victoria.
Shirley LaPlanche is a Sydney-based freelance travel writer/photographer who has been published in newspapers and magazines in Australia, Singapore, and London. She has also written and contributed to ecotourism travel guides on Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.