The sun is setting and the beach is empty – it officially closes at 6 o’clock in the evening this time of year.
The sand stretches out with no interruptions, just the small waves crashing against it on the shore.
The sky is changing from a bright blue into soothing spectrum of purples and oranges. Everything is set.
I’m at the Mon Repos Turtle Rookery, on the Queensland coast near Bundaberg. It’s the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on the eastern Australian mainland and the most significant loggerhead turtle nesting population in the South Pacific Ocean.
And tonight I am on patrol with the rangers who are going to make sure it all runs smoothly.
From the beginning of the season in November, turtles begin arriving on the beach from the ocean to lay their eggs. They swim to the shore after dark, drag themselves up into the dunes, dig a nest and lay their eggs.
Weeks later, the baby turtles hatch from the eggs under the cover of darkness and make their way down the sand and into the water. The babies will keep appearing until the season ends in about March.
The rangers have three roles – to manage the beach and make sure the turtles can lay and hatch with minimal disturbance; to conduct research on the animals; and to manage the visitors who are allowed to come and watch nature at its finest.
I’m starting the evening at Mon Repos with Lisa and we’re walking along the edge of the dunes, high above the low tide mark where the water currently is.
We’re keeping an eye on the shore in case we spot any turtles arriving from the ocean. Lisa tells me we’ll see a black shape emerging and working its way up if there’s an arrival. It’s a bit early for them, though.
So we’re focusing most of our attention on the dunes at the top of the beach where the nests are made.
The baby turtles wait under the sand until they can feel the temperature drop before making their last scramble to the surface. It could start happening any moment and with hundreds of nests along the beach, we need to look carefully the whole way along.
A call comes through on Lisa’s radio. It’s another ranger, Cathy, who has found a nest of hatching turtles. I head off to join her.
I’m not going to be the only person here to see the turtles make their dash to freedom down the beach. Mon Repos allows limited tourism and up to 300 people each night are allowed to come and watch the activity.
The crowd is broken up into a maximum of six groups of 50 people (although it’s normally much less during the non-peak period) and each group will go to a separate activity.
The visitors wait at the information centre to be called down when a ranger finds something worth seeing.
So the first group comes and joins Cathy around the nest. We gather around as she takes off a cover that had been blocking the entrance until the group arrived.
The small baby turtles, freshly hatched from their eggs under the sand, begin to climb out into the early evening.
The ranger collects them into a holding pen so they can be counted and released together for safety.
They are creatures of instinct – especially at this age. They are programmed by nature to head towards the brightest light they can see, which is traditionally the horizon where the sea meets the sky.
But with human development polluting the sky with light, they sometimes need a bit of help.
So, when it’s time to take away the holding pen, some members of the group stand on the beach with torches in a line towards the surf.
The little baby turtles – dozens and dozens of them – then start their furious flapping crawl towards their new home – The Pacific Ocean.
Most of them won’t survive until adulthood… less than one per cent, in fact. That’s just the way it is for baby turtles – they are a food source for other creatures of the ocean and that’s why each mother lays so many eggs.
But those who do survive will swim and feed in the ocean for about 30 years until they return to this area for breeding.
Just as the group is heading back to the centre, after all the turtles have safely made it into the water, there’s a radio call from Lisa. She’s found a turtle digging a nest a few hundred metres up the beach. I grab my things and head along the sand to meet up with her.
Most visitors to the Mon Repos Turtle Rookery will see either a hatching or a nesting. It is possible to wait until all the groups have had a turn and then go back out again to see something else, but nothing is guaranteed. That is the way with nature.
Some people wait hours until they even go down to the beach for the first time. But because the rangers have kindly offered to let me see how the operation runs, I arrive at my second event for the evening.
Again, the group has yet to arrive. Lisa has called it in but we’re down the far end of the beach and it’s taking a while for the group to walk here.
As we wait, I watch a large turtle on the beach near the dunes systematically digging a hole to lay her eggs. It’s mesmerising how clever yet instinctual it is.
She uses one back flipper to dig down and scoop up some sand. As she brings it back up and throws it off to one side, she shifts her weight and puts the flipper on the other side down the hole to do the same.
Back and forth she goes until everyone else arrives.
By the time the group is settled around in a semicircle, the turtle has begun laying her eggs. She seems unbothered by the group of humans around her.
The way Lisa describes it, the animal is aware we are all there but she is now so committed to her task that she’ll only get worried if she feels threatened. Everyone keeps well back to avoid that.
Eventually the turtle finishes laying the eggs and she takes a long time to fill in the hole and cover the nest with sand. It’s important that she camouflages the location so predators can’t find the eggs so she flips sand around and rubs against the beach.
By this stage the tide has risen and the water is almost at the nest. When the turtle is done, she turns to the ocean and slides back in, swimming off into the dark blue depths.
For many visitors, this is a special experience. Being up close with these peaceful animals is rare and the rangers here at Mon Repos try to make sure you have a meaningful time.
There are, however, a lot of variables. The animal behaviour, the weather, the tides, and the number of people all mean the night is unpredictable and it’s clear that some visits and some experiences are better than others.
What is consistent is the importance of conservation and the emphasis on the safety of the turtles.
When I asked Cathy about it, as we were crouched over the empty nest and she was counting egg shells for research information, she told me that having visitors is as important for conservation as anything else they do.
Spreading awareness and having people see nature at work in the wild is what will ultimately protect the turtles. After all, we are the biggest cause of the things that threaten them.
You can find more information at the official website of the Mon Repos Turtle Centre.