13 months
Jan 31:
the big tease
Feb 1:
big snake!
big snake!
Feb 10:
reef walking
Feb 28:
the low down
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the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House at dawn
Sydney, Australia; Feb 19, 2005

yertle the turtle

We're currently on Heron Island, spending an inordinate amount of time looking for turtles. For some unknown reason that defies all laws of probability, we seem be having much worse luck than most of our fellow island visitors. But have no fear; we have a sure-fire (yea, right) method for counteracting this ongoing streak of bad turtle-spotting luck: sheer volume. We look for turtles in the morning (starting around 4am, a bit before it's possible to actually see anything), we look for turtles at night (dinner until about 11pm, way past when it's possible to see anything), and we change our dinner time everyday in an effort to be on the beach at different times, etc. (basically, we're obsessive about finding turtles and devote as many hours as possible throughout the day).

a female Green Turtle (over 4 feet long) struggling
back to the ocean after laying her eggs

So while it would be easy to become frustrated by constantly hearing our compatriots say things like, "I saw 5 momma turtles this morning," or "if you go to that end of the island at 7:30, you can *always* see baby hatchlings," we will not be robbed of our enthusiasm! Around the island we go (again!) - after all, it only takes 20 minutes (it's a small island).

We’re fortunate to be here at the rare time of year when the last of the females are coming up to lay eggs and the first of the babies are hatching and making their mad dash for the ocean and the reef beyond.

Most of the turtles that nest on Heron Island are Green Turtles (though Loggerhead and Hawksbill Turtles come here, too). The adult females come to the place of their own birth every 2 to 4 years to lay eggs. They struggle up the beach to find a good place for a nest, laboriously dig the nest, lay between 80 and 200 eggs, and finally, completely exhausted, make their way back to the ocean. They repeat this process from 1-7 times every 12-14 days. The whole process usually takes 2-8 hours, and it's the only time that the turtle comes out of the water during her life.

a hatchling (less than 2 inches long) races for the ocean

Approximately 50-70 days later, the hatchlings are born. Using the moon as a reference, they flee to the ocean (so don’t shine a flashlight on them and don’t build highways near the nests or the hatchlings will get very confused and never make it to the ocean). The odds are against them since there are so many ways for them to meet their demise (birds eating either the eggs or the hatchlings, sharks and rays waiting for them as they enter the water for the first time, all sorts of other nasty predators in the ocean, etc.). Less than 1 in 4,000 survive to be an adult, with even smaller numbers managing to return to breed. But fortunately, after years of being carelessly hunted (or killed as consequence of fishing or other human activities), the turtles in Australia are making a small comeback. In the last 20 years, the Green Turtle population has risen to an estimated 200,000 breeding females, but they are still considered endangered. This is, in part, thanks to the folks who care for places like Heron Island.

If you ever get the chance, two things not to miss in life are the magic of seeing a mother turtle struggle through the ritual of laying eggs, and the excitement of watching a group of hatchlings race for their life into the ocean. Ah... the circle of life. (To see as much of this as we could capture in low-light conditions without disturbing the turtles, check out the turtle video.)

© 2004-2012 susan & grace, all rights reserved

-- comments from readers --


I hope you are both well. We are doing a similar trip to you both. We'd love to see turtls hatch and are trying to chose where to go and how long we need to stay. I was curious as to why you chose Heron Island over the less expensive Lady Elliot. Like you we want to do it independently which I know will cost more.

Also, what are the chances of seeing them (we are going this month). Were you just lucky or did it take a while?

Finally, I was wondering how you are getting on being home? We are due back in 5 months. Is it hard to settle back?

--Caroline (Central Queensland, Australia); Feb 17, 2007

We chose Heron because it was recommended to us and we were planning on it being one of our splurge points. We thought that the accommodations would be a lot nicer than they were. We really like the wildlife part of Heron, but they kinda' bill it as a resort and frankly, it's just not. We REALLY loved seeing the turtles, but if we did it again, we might go to a different island.

Seeing the turtles... well, apparently there is a lot of luck involved. And moon cycles and time of year of course. We stayed for almost a week, and we got to see a lot of turtles. That said, we were wandering around the island almost every night and morning and lots of times we saw nothing. We think that we spend more hours looking for turtles than anybody else that was staying there at the time, but there were certainly people who were more lucky than we were.

Being back home... that is a tough one. It's hard to adjust, but we're doing well. Different things are important to us now and we're hoping to go traveling again soon. Maybe we get jobs in Asia for a while... who knows?

--Grace & Susan; Feb 25, 2007


I frequentlty visit an area where turtles are hatched. Interesting reading was your article on turtles at Heron Island. Keen to learn of ways to give turtles the best oppurtinty of reproduction. Should not all turtle breeding locations have a floating light at sea to allow baby turtles the best chance of survival?

--Dave B. (Central Queensland, Australia); Nov 4, 2005

Well, that's a good idea. Of course, we're not qualified to answer this question, but anything that would give the turtles a higher chance of survival would be great.

--Grace; Nov 6, 2005