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Up Close & Personal with a Turtle

The egg in my hand is warm, soft, and about the size of a Ping-Pong ball. At my feet, a giant green turtle sighs deeply as she lays a clutch of about 120 eggs in a pear-shaped chamber dug from the sand. A large tear rolls from her eye. In the distance, the wedge-tailed shearwaters call eerily to each other over the sound of the ocean.

The egg-laying ritual of the turtles is central to a trip to Heron Island in the summer months. At night and in the early morning, small groups of people gather on the beaches to witness the turtles lumber up the beach, dig holes in the sand, and lay their eggs. Every night during the season, volunteer guides from the University of Queensland research station on the island tag and measure the turtles before they return to the water. The laying season runs December through February, and only one in 5,000 hatchlings will live to return in about 50 years to lay their own eggs.

Another good place to watch the turtles nesting is Mon Repos Beach, outside Bundaberg. Mon Repos Conservation Park is one of the two largest loggerhead-turtle rookeries in the South Pacific. The visitor center by the beach has a great display on the turtle life cycle and shows films at approximately 7:30pm daily in summer. There is a strict booking system for turtle-watching tours, to help cope with the crowds. Access to the beach is by ticket only, and you must book your visit to Mon Repos during the turtle season. Tickets are sold through the Bundaberg Visitor Information Centre at 271 Bourbong St., Bundaberg (tel. 1300/722 099 in Australia or 07/4153 8888), or you can book online at www.bookbundabergregion.com.au from September 1. The website has a lot of very useful information on how to get to the rookery and what to expect from your turtle-watching experience. Tours start at 7pm, but you may have to wait up to 2 hours or more, depending on when the turtles appear. Nesting happens around high tide; hatching usually occurs between 8pm and midnight. Take a sweater, as it can get quite cool.

The Mon Repos Turtle Rookery (tel. 07/4159 1652 or 07/4131 1600) is 14km (8 3/4 miles) east of Bundaberg's town center. Follow Bourbong Street out of town toward Burnett Heads as it becomes Bundaberg-Bargara Road. Take the Port Road to the left and look for the Mon Repos signs to the right. During turtle-nesting season (Nov to late Mar), the park and information center are open 24 hours a day. Public access to the beach is closed from 6pm to 6am. Turtle viewing tours run from 7pm until 1am daily (except for Dec 24, 25, and 31). From April to early November (when no turtles are around), the information center is open Monday to Friday from 8am to 3:30pm. The park is open 24 hours. Admission to the visitor center is free from April through November; but when the turtles start nesting, you pay A$9.85 for adults, A$5.25 for children ages 5 to 17 and seniors, or A$24 for families, including your tour.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.