I was thirty when I saw my first Green sea turtle emerging from the sea and lumbering up the beach to lay her eggs. Earlier that day I had arrived—with a slightly queasy stomach after the rough 50-mile boat ride from the mainland—with my family on Heron Island, a World Heritage-Listed Marine National Park on the Tropic of Capricorn, near the southern end of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. We were there for two months, staying in a basic cabin at the research station which occupied one end of the tiny island. On the other end sat a boutique resort where most guests were lucky to stay three nights. John, my husband, was about to begin a research project on the vegetation and birds on the island, and my main task was to keep an eye on the kids, the youngest only two, and keep the older two, both of school age, up to date on their math and reading skills.
After settling into our cabin—a rectangular box with six bunks, a rough kitchen, a shaded deck and glass doors along
the front that remained wide open the entire time we were there—we explored the island. The resort marketed it as “Heron Island, just a drop in the ocean” and that is what it was, a tiny coral cay of 16 hectares (40 acres) with a green center and coral sand beaches around its shoreline. Most of it was only a meter above sea level, rather a liability in a cyclone as we discovered on one of our future trips. The 24-hectare reef surrounding Heron is one of the world’s richest reefs, home to 900 of the 1,500 fish species and 72% of the coral species on the Great Barrier Reef. No surprise that we carried with us a box of wetsuits, masks, snorkels and flippers.
That evening, we sat on the sand a few meters from our cabin and watched the thousands of shearwaters flying in from the sea to their nests which riddled the sand of the island. The tide was coming in and the vast reef flats were covered in water. As the moon rose, casting its silver path right to where we sat (“How does the moon know exactly where we are? Why does it like us best?” asked my four-year-old) I spotted a ball floating near the edge of the water. And then it popped up and in the moonlight, I saw the ancient head with its sleepy eyes. Now we could see the hump of its shell and then she was clambering onto the sand. We all sat motionless, entranced as she dragged her 700-pound weight up the gently sloping beach, her paddle-like flippers almost rowing her along. She finally found the perfect spot and began the long difficult task of scooping out a deep hole with her back flippers, sending sand flying. When the hole was so deep the sides were well above her large shell, she delicately inserted a back flipper into the wet sand she had exposed and fashioned a tear-drop cavity. Squatting over it, she squeezed out her hundred or more glistening white golf-ball-sized eggs. Filling the hole in involved another massive effort before she rowed herself back down the sand and slid into the sea.
I was hooked.
I began to follow the turtle researchers on their nightly patrol of the beach and within days had got to know them and inveigled an invitation to join the team. Every night at rising tide, I would put on my turtle tagging gear—headtorch, canvas belt with a pouch for the pliers we used to pierce the flippers of the turtles and insert a metal tag, measuring tape to measure the shell dimensions (up to 5 feet long), and a clipboard with data sheets attached to record the tag number, the locations of any barnacles on her shell or damage to the turtle (some had massive scars from shark attacks), the number of eggs she laid, and the location of her nest. Turtles already tagged would have their tag number recorded and the same measurements taken. Then we would go to the next turtle and repeat. As the nesting season lengthened the numbers of turtles coming up every night increased. On the heaviest night, we recorded eighty turtles before collapsing in our beds at dawn.
So I would sleep in while John got breakfast for the kids before going off to measure his trees and record the hundreds of thousands of birds, and the kids would run free, ignoring their promises to learn their six-times table. By 11a.m., it was too hot to sleep and if the water was over the reef flats we’d all go for a snorkel, even the two-year-old. It changed the lives of our children forever, gifting them an enduring passion for the wild and the sea.
Then there was the turtle rodeo. This was high adrenalin stuff. As only the female turtles came up to nest, the only way to measure the males was to catch them at sea. We sped around the reef flats in a dinghy with an outsized outboard motor and when a turtle pair was spotted copulating near the surface, a researcher would dive into the water from the speeding boat and grab the top turtle—the unfortunate male—and point him towards the boat, which had now swung about and stopped. From the boat, we would grab its front flippers and tie them to the sides so that we could measure and tag the turtle before releasing him back to the sea. Hopefully, he would find his mate again. It seemed cruel, but there were no indications that it did any significant harm. Unfortunately wildlife research is not always gentle.
And to complete the cycle, around February the baby turtles began their nightly eruptions from their nests. We did our best to count these two-inch clockwork miniatures of their parents as they scuttled down to the sea. Many were taken by hungry seabirds within minutes of leaving the nest, and others became supper for the fish and sharks on the reef. The lucky ones who made it out into the deep ocean were rarely seen again until they had reached dinner-plate size. When they mature at 20 or 30 years, they migrate vast distances to return to the beach where they were born to lay their own eggs.
We returned to Heron Island a number of times, and it never lost its magic. I’m not sure when the idea came to me for the story in my new novel A Drop in the Ocean, but once I began writing it flowed out! The Turtle Island of my novel is fictional but modeled on Heron Island, and my family recognizes many of the experiences my protagonist, Anna, has in the book—the turtle patrols, the magical snorkeling, the Queensland Grouper adventure—although they do agree that Anna is almost the reverse of me in personality. And
although the turtle researchers on Heron Island were a delightfully laconic bunch of Aussies, there was no turtle whisper quite like the lovely Tom!
Jenni Ogden’s new novel, A Drop In The Ocean is out now.