Twenty five years after our first attempt at seeing the turtles of Mon Repos we struck gold when we ventured to the brand new Turtle Centre at Mon Repos, Bundaberg. Our road trip this weekend was triggered by my son who has been closely involved with the design of this new iconic building by Kirk.
The new Turtle Centre at Mon Repos by Kirk (Architects)
Our first trip in 1994 to check out the turtles was an exciting trip in a hired camper trailer with all the kids (aged 8,5,2 years) having croup so badly that we actually took our humidifier and had it going all night! The midgies which were shocking also kept us on our toes and we didn’t come close to seeing a turtle laying or a hatchling hatching. There was nothing much formal organised to see the turtles- or if there was we didn’t find out about it (remember this was pre-google days).
Fast forward to 2020 and we had definitely prioritized seeing this new magnificent building. But we soon found out that seeing the turtles requires some forward-planning as there are limited numbers of tourists taken out on the sand each night and these book out months and months ahead. But we had a weekend looming with everyone free to go and so it was on. After searching websites and phoning to beg for seven spaces on the tour for the 8th, the lovely lady at Mon Repos Turtle Centre suggested we check out all the tour companies and see if they had any spare spots and sure enough Bundaberg Coaches came through with the goods. Seven spots for the Saturday night and better still, the ticket price included a pick-up from our accommodation to Mon Repos and return to the accommodation after the turtles sighting.
Some may say that driving to Bundaberg for an overnighter was too much, but we headed off for the four and a half hour drive at the crack of dawn on Saturday and arrived in good time and no discomfort- definitely achievable for a weekend. We stayed at Don Pancho Resort which weirdly was where (Bob believes) we stayed on another family holiday (but of which I have no recollection). It was very reasonable and very pleasant and most importantly you can stay there just for one night which made the whole trip very inexpensive. The young ones headed off to The Bundaberg Rum Distillery and the oldies and the babies headed for a session of beach and rockpool time. There were plenty of crabs and miniature fish to keep everyone entertained and then a big session at the great pool back at the Don Pancho.
Thousands of baby fish in the rockpools kept everyone excited
After an attempted (and failed) afternoon nap time the bus arrived for the pick up at 6.20pm and off to the centre we went. On the way we spotted some wallabies which added to the excitement. The all-important allocation of groups at the Turtle Centre desk revealed we had really scored by booking with a tour group because, despite purchasing the tickets only 6 days before, we were in Group 2 – the second group to go out and meant we didn’t have to wait until (potentially) 2am to see the turtles. There were around 300 people all patiently waiting for their turn to go down to the beach, carefully guided by a National Parks Ranger (we had Loz- she was great). There are lots of great audio-visual displays and plenty of things to keep the littlies entertained during the Big Wait.
- Definitely eat before you go, as the cafe only has drinks and the (inevitable, inedible) packaged pies and sausage rolls and limited baguettes.
- You MUST take waterproof coats or ponchos if there is any threat of rain as you are not allowed to take umbrellas out onto the beach.
- You MUST wear joggers on the beach to walk to see the turtle action and the walk could be 800-1000 metres in the PITCH DARK.
- Really for this reason, you have to be fairly steady on your feet. You can’t see where you are going and the beach might be quite steep and with soft sand making it difficult to walk on.
- No lights are allowed (including just the light of a mobile, mobile flashes with photos, torches or head lamps) as it may affect the natural process of the turtles that you have come to observe, whether it be turtles laying eggs or hatchlings making their way to the water after hatching from their eggs. But you will be given opportunities to take photos with lighting provided by the Rangers.
- While there are plenty of tables and chairs for you to wait at, definitely take a good book to read and a thermos of tea/coffee and snacks to keep you awake if you don’t have young kids with you, as the cafe shuts at 8pm. It is a perfect time to catch up on some reading and the wait will be significant if you are not in Group 1 or 2. If you have young kids, they love the interactive room and as we were group 2 the ranger took us in to an auditorium, gave us a great talk and then some nice videos about turtles to look at after Group 1 went out to be taken to the beach. There is sand at the bottom of the auditorium with some giant turtle models that kept the 2 year olds entertained (when the beautiful video didn’t).
Our wait was around an hour and our ranger came and stopped the video and said there is action happening with a loggerhead turtle coming in to lay eggs. We headed out in the gentle drizzle (and very moody but slightly worrying distant lightning) and very carefully followed the ranger out on the boardwalks.
Did I say it is very dark? With intense cloud cover, rain and no lighting you have to hope the builder did a good job on laying the planks on the boardwalk. All the kids (and there were quite a few) were incredibly brave with none of them whinging about the dark. I think they were all filled with excitement about the upcoming reveal.
We walked along the beach and came to where the most incredibly beautiful (and enormous) loggerhead turtle was in the process of laying her eggs.
Oblivious to the large audience, she went about her business of laying 124 eggs!
She was unperturbed about her large audience and there was great excitement in our group when the ranger announced she was a brand new, previously untagged loggerhead. It was her very first time at Mon Repos. Loggerhead turtles usually start their reproductive years at age 30 and then lay eggs for around 40 years – and when they come back to nest they lay up to 6 clutches over a 12 week period. Each clutch of eggs is around 120 eggs and our girl laid 124 eggs! Unbelievable. It was so fantastic watching her and realizing she started her journey 30 years before as a hatchling and then came back to Mon Repos to complete the circle of life. We all felt very privileged to witness this beautiful experience. The rangers tagged her and that was something she didn’t particularly enjoy and she took off back to the ocean at a great rate of knots. But that tagging is vital to the researchers who work at Mon Repos in helping track the turtles and monitor their numbers.
But it got better. The researchers at Mon Repos know that they have a two hour window once the eggs are laid by the turtle to move the eggs to a nearby hatchery. This hatchery has sun protection and is closely monitored by rangers to ensure the eggs have the best chance to survive things like the hotter sand due to our increasingly hotter weather because of climate change.
The ranger carefully digs the eggs out after the turtle has returned to the water and then they get moved to the hatchery which is shaded
And you may ask – how did all those eggs make it to the hatchery?
Michael with the 3 eggs he moved
Yes all the people in the group got to move the eggs into the newly dug holes – another unbelievable experience which I didn’t know was coming. We all lined up and took our turn and because she laid 124 eggs some of us got a second go and I took 5 eggs to the hatchery. So moving.
After everything that had happened the group was on quite a high but it was about to get even better. We were making our way back to the boardwalk when we were all ordered to immediately stop because there in front of us were 8 little straggler hatchlings randomly walking down to the ocean.
A close-up of the hatchling
I suddenly decided that night that when we retire it may be worth having some months up at Mon Repos volunteering to help the researchers across the turtle season. This is such a fantastic weekend trip. Don’t be put off by the drive up but maybe allow 2 or 3 nights as there is lots to do including just chilling looking at the beautiful water.
One of the lovely rangers at the Turtle Centre Side View and the Outdoor Education Centre