At the beginning of each year, Heron Island comes alive with the pitter patter of baby turtle flippers scurrying down the beaches. Having just returned from my 9th visit to the island, I’ve put together my ultimate guide to Turtle Season in nature’s wonderland, Heron Island!
Where is Heron Island:
80kms off the coast of Gladstone on the Southern Great Barrier Reef lies the coral cay known as Heron Island. Whilst it might only take 20mins to walk around the island, what you’ll see in those 20mins will amaze you!
How to get to Heron:
There’s two ways to travel to Heron Island, you can catch the ferry transfer which departs the Gladstone Marina or you can get a helicopter from Gladstone Airport. The ferry takes around 2 hours whilst the chopper is 30mins. The helicopter transfer is more expensive but the views are phenomenal. Hovering high above the Coral Sea, you’ll get a bird’s eye view of several islands and small reefs before arriving at the most stunning part of the trip, Wistari Reef and then Heron Island. Keep an eye out for the marine life below, it’s not unusual to catch your first sight of turtles cruising over the reefs!
When to visit for the best turtle experiences:
Thousands of turtles live in the waters around Heron Island all year round so you’ll definitely see them no matter what month you come but if you want the ultimate turtle experience then look at coming in the months between November and March.
Beginning in November each year, the turtles start mating and the females begin nesting on the beaches around the island. Nesting runs through to around March (sometimes a bit later).
From January through to May the baby turtles then start hatching and this is the real drawcard for a lot of people. Visitors from all around the world flock here during this period and it’s truly an incredible experience to see the baby turtles emerge from their nests and scurry down the beach for the first time.
If you’d like to see both the females nesting and baby turtles hatching in the one trip, then I’d recommend visiting from mid January through to March. Each season is a little different with numbers but during these months is generally the highest concentration of sightings. I’ve been on Heron and seen a baby turtle as late as the 1st of June (the first day of Winter!) but it’s very rare to see them then. We actually spotted the first humpback whale of the migration season that morning as well so it was quite a day!
Why is Heron Island such a turtle haven?
Turtles have been nesting here for generations and the beach that a turtle nests at holds special significance as it is actually the same beach that they were born on. When it comes time for sea turtles to start reproducing (usually around 30 years of age) they use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate their way back to the same beach that they were born on.
Heron is an extremely important habitat for not just turtles but a large number of wildlife and marine life. As such the island is protected as a part of the Capricornia Cays National Park as well as being part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
The protections provided by its designation as a national park/ marine park, mean that Heron is the perfect environment for turtles to flourish in and combined with the history of turtles nesting and hatching here it is why there are such large number of turtles in the waters around the island.
Where to see the turtles nesting and hatching on the island:
Pretty much anywhere there is a spare spot of sand above the high tide mark is where you can find a turtle nest! The female turtles lay their nests above the high tide mark so that the nests don’t get flooded by the incoming tides and it gives the hatchlings the best chance of survival.
It’s not unusual to wake up of a morning to find a turtle nest has been dug right outside your room overnight. It’s important to turn the lights off in your room of an evening so that it doesn’t disturb the nesting turtles or disorientate any baby turtles that hatch nearby. When baby turtles emerge from their nests, they have an instinct that leads them in the brightest direction. This is usually the moonlight on the ocean but if there are any artificial lights nearby they can be drawn to that instead.
My favourite spot to watch them nesting and hatching is from around Northern Beach and into Shark Bay. The sun rises at this end of the island as well and paints a pretty spectacular scene as the turtles come up and down the beach.
What is the best time of day to see the turtles?
For turtle nesting, the best time to see them is 2 hours either side of high tide of an evening. As it’s night time, it’s pitch black and difficult to spot them but you can go on an Island Walk with a Heron Island guide who’ll teach you all about the life cycle of turtles and will point out any turtles nesting. It’s important not to use torches on the beach as the nesting turtles are very sensitive to light and always remain around 10m away from a nesting turtle.
Nesting isn’t restricted to an evening though and it is possible to see them during daylight. I like to head out at sunrise as there is usually a few stragglers that have come up to nest quite late and as a result they then head back down the beach during daylight. This provides the best opportunity to get a photo or a video of a turtle on the beach.
Turtle hatchlings are most frequently spotted around sunset or sunrise. The cooling down of the sand at the end of the day is a signal for the baby turtles to start emerging from their nests and begin their journey down the beach and out to sea. It’s a perilous journey for them as there’s often seagulls circling overhead waiting for an easy meal. These seagulls can provide a tip off that there’s a nest that’s just hatched as they’ll quite often be concentrated around any hatchlings and if you’re lucky you might then be able to spot the hundred or so baby turtles scurrying down the beach! It’s not unusual to see a small crowd of guests trying their best to swat away the seagulls and prevent them from swooping up a hatchling.
Another tip if you’re looking for hatchlings is if you keep an eye out for the rangers and researchers that check the hatched nests each morning and afternoon. The rangers frequently find a couple of hatchlings in a nest that have been stuck under a tree root or some coral rubble and they then release them on the beach where you can see them scurrying down to the waterline.
Can you swim with the turtles on Heron Island?
Yes, Heron is an amazing place to swim with turtles, not just during the nesting and hatching season but right throughout the year. My favourite place to swim with them is the shipwreck at the entrance to the island. The turtles are quite common here and if you can’t spot them cruising on the surface then take a look down at the coral along the sea floor. The coral gardens act as a type of cleaning station and the turtles love hanging out here whilst the fish clean their shells of parasites.
A couple of other great spots to swim with them straight off the beach are around the jetty and also at The Gantry, a wooden structure that you’ll see just outside Baillie’s Bar. 2 hours either side of high tide is the best time to snorkel straight off the beach here.
Snorkel and diving tours are also available if you’d like to check out some of the other popular spots that are only accessible by boat and you can book these from the dive shop where they’ll advise you of the tour times.
Any tips for how to get the best photos of turtles?
Patience is the most important factor! Sea turtles are wild animals and it’s important to respect them and understand that they do things in their own time. Nesting turtles are also quite shy and sensitive to movement so when you see one, always try and remain low and still, remain 10m away and behind her line of sight. As you can’t get too close to them a zoom lens is important if you want to get close up shots of them. The most spectacular shots of the nesting turtles are generally at sunrise so don’t forget to set your alarm for an early start. First light is generally around 20mins before sunrise and I like to be on the beach at first light to give myself the best chance of spotting them.
When it comes to photographing baby turtles, you’ll need to be quite fast as they quickly scurry past you on their way down the beach. Choosing a fast shutter speed is really important if you want a crisp shot of them, if the shutter speed is too slow then the image will be blurry. I usually start with a shutter speed of around 1/500th of a second and change it up or down depending on the speed of the hatchling. A zoom lens is really handy for the hatchlings as well as they’re so tiny!