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Baby Turtle Bliss for the Blondies on Heron Island

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As we set off for another adventure we were not sure who was more excited this time, us or the kids! Our 3 year old, Marli, could not wait to go in a car, bus, plane and boat all in one day, but we were about to fulfil a life long dream of ours to witness and photograph baby turtles hatching on the world famous Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef.

After the adventurous day of travel, as exciting as it was for Marli, we arrived in paradise with calm seas and a low tide just in time to enjoy the sunset over the famous shipwreck (The HMAS Protector). With a cold drink in hand, we instantly felt relaxed as the warm tropical breeze and good vibes surrounded us… ahhh bliss!

Eager to explore the Island once more, (as we are lucky enough this was not our first visit) we headed out at first light the next day in search of ‘mumma’ sea turtles who lay their eggs on the beach, usually coming ashore at high tide in the early hours of the morning. We were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by loads of turtle tracks up and down the beach! After a few mornings of early wake-ups we were thrilled to see 3 turtles in total finishing off the huge job of laying their eggs. To see these amazing creatures out of the water, who reach sexual maturity between 20 – 40 years of age and can weigh up to 200kg, is mind blowing.
The whole process of laying eggs is extremely tiring for the females. Some of us ‘fellow mums’ (and even the dads) were very impressed and sympathetic towards these amazing animals as you can see how tired she is. After approximately 65 days of gestation these turtle nests will be bursting with tiny baby turtles, an event we were eager to experience. So from then on we were on ‘baby turtle watch’, surveying the edge of the scrub (where the trees meet the sand) as we ventured along the beach in case a nest came to life at any moment!

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As the sun rose in the sky we headed out for a day of exploring above and below the electric blue waters of the island. Surrounding us, as we walked along the jungle-like path from our cabin, were thousands of nesting birds – their sounds reminded me of something out of the movie Jurassic Park! Perched up high (and sometimes very low at our head height) were beautiful Black Noddy birds. These little guys and gals were very busy making their nests or tending to their already hatched fluffy baby chicks. Not concerned by all the people that walk past them daily, they allow you to get up close to take a great photo… you just have to watch out from above!!! (If you manage to visit Heron Island in the nesting season without getting pooed on you’re not doing it right!!).
We were a little shocked to see some of these beautiful black and white birds walking around with parts of their nesting tree stuck to them. We later learnt that they have a symbiotic relationship with this tree. When the Pisonia Grandis tree flowers it produces a sticky sap which then sticks to the birds, they gradually pick up more and more of these sticky seed pods and eventually cannot fly or eat and sadly die. Their bodies then provide the nutrients needed for the seeds to germinate, creating more habitat for future generations of birds to nest in. It is an amazing circle of life.
Our days on the island are full of exploring, snorkelling, water play with the kids and spending some down time in our cabin or by the resort pool. Rob discovered the Iced Coffee served at the resort bar so we quickly became well known to the friendly bar staff. Keeping hydrated in the tropical climate is important, as well as a cool drink, another good way to cool down is to dive into the crystal clear waters that surround you.
It wasn’t long until we were exploring the amazing underwater world. Snorkeling right off the beach is one of our favourite elements of Heron. As you swim out into deeper water you are greeted with a range of sting rays including Cow Tails, Shovel Nose, Manta and the lesser known Porcupine ray. Inquisitive Black and White tip reef sharks eyeball you from a distance and the schools of amazing tropical fish buzz around you swimming amongst the amazing coral gardens, that in some areas stretch as far as your eye can see, and in other areas drop off into the deep blue below.

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Swimmig around the shipwreck we said hello to a few larger resident fish that we have seen hanging out there in past visits and we are always instantly bursting with excitement as a sea turtle cruises on past or comes up to the surface to take a breath. Swimming alongside a sea turtle is an amazing experience and something you can pretty much guarantee when visiting Heron Island as it boasts a population of around 4000 resident turtles.

Travelling with our young kids is something we embrace and showing them all the wonders of nature is something we endeavour to do. As they are too young to snorkel (Marli is just three and Ziggy just six months old) we could not resist taking them on the semi submersible boat. In our opinion this is a MUST DO when visiting… it is just like snorkeling but without getting wet and without all the hard work!! Seeing the wonder on our little ones faces as we glided along the reef past amazing shelf coral, schools of fish and the plentiful sea life was one of the best experiences for us – it was just like the movie ‘Finding Nemo’ but in real life! We also learned a lot from our guide as she explained fish names, species and amazing facts about the Great Barrier Reef which is one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’.
 

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Did you know that parrot fish eat algae extracted from chunks of coral. The coral is pulverised with grinding teeth in the fishes’ throats which turn it into sand. The most interesting fact is that parrot fish don’t have stomachs, so their meals pass straight through their long intestine, exploding in a cloud of sand out their ‘backdoor’. So yes – large parrotfish are like sand factories, producing as much as 840 pounds of sand per year!! Now that’s something to remember when building your next sandcastle!!
Back on dry land we spent each evening walking along the shore line with the sea breeze cooling us down as the sun set over the ocean. With excitement we searched for hatching turtles and often kept an eye on the seagulls above who can give away a hatching nest as they unfortunately eat the hatchlings as they emerge from the sand to make their way to the water.

To our delight we witnessed two nests hatching and with squeals of excitement we watched (and snapped our cameras like mad) as these tiny little babies, about 8cm long, emerged from the sand.

At one nest site we were following the flurry of the seagulls above and searched around the bushes to look for a nest only to be surprised to see tiny turtles pop up right between our feet!! Jumping out of the way we took in the remarkable moment of their first sprint down the sand towards the water. Shooing the seagulls away like a bunch of mad nutters we recruited the help of others nearby and we all banded together to help give the hatchlings the best start they could have. We all felt a great sense of camaraderie sharing in such a memorable exciting moment!

It is said that 1 out of 1000 hatchlings make it to maturity so those little guys had a big job ahead of them. Once they make it past the predators from above they then face the sharks and fish that are attracted after feeling their vibrations on the sand as they run down the beach. You should not  pick the baby turtles up and carry them to the water (away from the birds) as they use the journey down the sand to build strength and to produce body heat that will enable them to swim and cope with the shock of the cold water. Without interfering too much we did what we could.

One fellow resort guest escorted one little guy (or girl – the turtles sex is determined by the temperature of the nest) all the way out to the reef edge, knee deep in water he ‘shooed away those birds as long as he could! “Go you good thing”!! Lets hope he is still out there cruising around the ocean! Once the baby turtles swim out into the open ocean they drift with the ocean current for the first 5 – 10 years of their life, feeding close to the surface on plankton, seaweed, insects and small crustaceans. Once they reach sexual maturity they migrate back to the beach where they hatched to mate and/or lay their eggs.

You couldn’t wipe the smiles from our faces after witnessing such an amazing moment and we couldn’t help but make new friends with the other guests with whom we had just shared this incredible experience. We were all buzzing with joy. We could easily get used to island life and think that maybe we won’t leave.
For Marli, witnessing ‘mumma’ turtles lay their eggs in the morning and then seeing the little hatchlings bursting out of their nest at sunset was an amazing hands on learning experience – she was front row in mother nature’s classroom! We also enjoyed learning a lot about the turtles. Staff from the onsite research station regularly excavate nests to document what remains in the nest after a natural hatch has occurred. During an excavation, the research team will dig up the nest, count eggshells, and collect un-hatched eggs for research. Live hatchlings are sometimes found during these excavations and we were lucky to witness a few nest digs which housed a few ‘straggler’ hatchlings. This was a great experience as we had the time to view the hatchlings up close, ask questions and show Marli the egg shells and how deep the eggs are buried (40 – 50cm deep).

With so much excitement each day we made sure we enjoyed some down-time, especially for the kids. Our family reef room gave us the perfect place to retreat and chill out when needed. With the sound of the birds humming in the background we relaxed on our balcony, enjoyed a quick dip in the balmy water that is only a few steps away, or built sand castles under the shade of the pandanus trees – sometimes it’s these simple moments that make the best memories. On our previous visit to the island, we also enjoyed a guided tour of the research station which has an amazing tropical fish tank and a touch pool for the kids, we enjoyed reef walks as well as some guided snorkeling and dive tours. There are so many activity options avaliable and you can choose to do as much or as little as you like… can it get any better?! We can’t get enough of this place and hope to come back again soon…

For now, we say good bye, until next time Heron Island… we will be back.

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Watch our movie clip of our time at Heron Island:

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Book your holiday to Paradise – aka Heron Island, you won’t regret it.

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7 Responses to Baby Turtle Bliss for the Blondies on Heron Island

  1. maggie 2, February, 2016 at 9:15 pm #

    Aww baby turtles! Beautiful snaps it seems like an amazing place. Hope you had a great time!!

  2. Leonie 3, February, 2016 at 10:03 am #

    What a beautiful family story of adventures on Heron Island. So lucky to be able to share this natures wonderland with your gorgeous children. What incredible photos giving us an insight to an amazing natural habitat they have on the island. Thank you blonde nomads for sharing

  3. Krify Dot Co 3, February, 2016 at 10:32 pm #

    Looks cool ! kick of real fun with selfies 😛 i definatly plan a trip with my mobile app developers team from krify 😉

  4. Liss Connell 22, February, 2016 at 9:20 pm #

    I really loved seeing these turtle pics on your instagram! Definitely making me want to visit Heron Island!!!

  5. Kerry 19, September, 2016 at 11:43 pm #

    Wonderful post and fabulous photos! What a joy that would have been to share this experience of hatching turtles with your children – I can just image the smiles of delight. I’m planning a trip to Heron for next February so this post was so informative. Thanks.

  6. Deborah 12, January, 2017 at 12:19 pm #

    Hello, this is an amazing post!
    My husband and I share your passion for travelling with our toddlers and we are planning a trip to Australia (from NZ) for next winter (July). Is this a good time to visit Heron Island? Do you have any recommendations on where to stay? or is there just the one resort?
    Thank you for the inspiration 😉

    • Tracy Morris 13, January, 2017 at 2:52 pm #

      Hi Deborah, Thanks for your comment and so great to hear of your travel plans! You will love Heron Island. Winter is a great time to visit, water clarity will be great. There is only the one place to stay, the island is very small and you can walk around it in about 40 minutes. Hope that helps 🙂

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