The crashing sound of the breakwater and the purl of surf on the beach couldn’t drown out the hundred or so footsteps that marched in disorder under the bright moonlight. The hard-packed sand gave a kind of squeaking crunch under the boots, flip-flops, sandals, and running shoes of the motley group as it followed, at a short distance, the bobbing headlamp and clarion voice of its ponytailed guide.

Voices were hushed. But collectively they gave an unintelligible background noise to the scene that even the high wind of an especially windy night couldn’t entirely quiet. The group was stopped and started and stopped again as directions were confusedly transmitted over a walkie-talkie. Mysterious coordinates were conveyed:

“Are you right at Seven?”

“Right at it.”


Again the group moved out. Despite the presence of old women and adolescents and adults unfit for the rigor of brisk walking the assembly was made to climb a sandy rise, stumbling over tussocks of tough beach grass, then shuffle along a two-track road beneath a copse of overhanging trees that obscured the moonlight. The more skittish participants entertained fears of the highly poisonous brown snake: known to prefer this exact habitat, the brown snake is nocturnal and easily agitated.

Once more the group, ungainly and grumbling, was halted. It had arrived at Seven. No brown snakes, or any other nefarious Australian predators, were spotted, felt, stepped on, or otherwise provoked.

The guide gave hasty instructions. After viewing a video in which she figured prominently, the group placed absolute trust in her. She directed everyone down a final grassy dune and formed the group into a semicircle, where it finally beheld the object of its search: a great snuffling twitching prehistoric shell that seemed in the bright blue bath of moonlight to be swimming in sand.

Patches of light shifted on the surface of the ocean well out from the wide track of sand that extended many miles north and south. Sudden quiet: even the wind seemed to die down.

The turtle, a scarred green and yellow creature the size of a small coffee table, continued its digging, reaching into the hole with back flippers that scooped the sand like hands – better than hands – and deposited it in piles on either side. After about 15 minutes the flatback – one of three species that frequent the rookery at Mon Remos Conservation Park in southern Queensland – finished and perceptibly squatted over the hole.

The audience eased forward. A flashlight placed at the crest of the hole by the guide illuminated the event. Undismayed by the crowd or the light the turtle laid 54 billiard ball-sized eggs, often two and three at a time. She then buried them before submitting – reluctantly but without violence – to a series of tests of size and weight and the scoring on her flippers and shell. Weight had to be measured by strapping ropes around the turtle’s front and back flippers and across her belly and lifting her awkwardly among four volunteers. Only the ninth flatback to deposit a clutch here this season, she was the object of resolute scientific inquiry.

Tests completed, the beast ambled back to sea, pausing once in her twin ruts of sand to look around as the rolling film of surf came up to meet her, then continuing in a lurching mosey to the water where she soon disappeared into the low tide.

Chatter erupted like soda from a shaken bottle but was soon hushed again and not by the rising wind, now so strong as to whip grains of sand painfully against any exposed legs. The guide announced that the new clutch was too near the water – susceptible to drowning when the tide came up, a common problem – and would have to be moved.

“Do we have any volunteers?”

Everyone lined up with cupped hands and accepted a small white egg – still malleable, to withstand collisions with other eggs – and brought it to a volunteer waiting at a newly dug cavity a few meters up the beach.

The process was time-consuming. Midnight approached. The moon disappeared behind scudding regiments of cloud, then reappeared to wash the beach in blue, a pattern of illumination and darkness that few noticed after time. Most were too exhausted. The strain of concentration was more than they were used to.

Then came the news: another turtle, a loggerhead, caretta caretta, had been spotted by one of a squad of volunteers walking the beach. It was digging on a dune safely above high tide some 150 meters north.

Exhaustion melted away. The loggerhead is the resident turtle of Mon Remos. The population of loggerheads that uses the beach is the most significant in the South Pacific. It is a rare turtle, endangered, but this is the place to see one. The group unanimously voted to go.

The night wore on. Everyone forgot the wind, the sea, cold, soreness. It was a good night for the tourists and a better one for science. Several large groups (containing fifty people each, at $10 a head) witnessed the laying of several clutches by all three types of turtle, including the green turtle, a species that returned here this summer for the first time since 2001.

Some turtles were previously tagged, signifying returnees; some were first-time mothers – also encouraging as efforts intensify to bring these endangered turtles back from the brink of extinction. Starting in January visitors will see hatchlings crawl out of the sand and down to the sea.