Sand flies as she digs with her front flippers. Next, the back flippers excavate an egg chamber. If she deems it suitable, she’ll start to lay roughly 115 eggs, each one the size of a ping-pong ball. Finally, nearing exhaustion, she’ll drag herself back to the sea.

From November to March, this scene plays out night after night along Ningaloo Reef. For lucky humans who have witnessed this miracle of nature, it’s simply unforgettable, and for the best chance of a turtle encounter, it pays to join a professionally guided tour.

During turtle nesting season, Exmouth Adventure Co. operates a Summer Sunset Turtle Watching Tour . Following a bus ride from Exmouth, visitors enjoy sunset drinks on the beach while their guide explains the turtle safeguarding measures in the Turtle Watching Code of Practice, developed by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA).

“No artificial light is really important,” says guide Neri Grieve. “So just allow time for your eyes to adjust to the natural light. We’re lucky up here at Ningaloo that we’ve got beautiful clear skies most of the time.”

Visitors wait quietly by the water’s edge for a female to begin the nesting procedure. With poor eyesight on land, sometimes turtles will walk straight past the quiet observers.

Underwater picture of person snorkelling next to a turtle swimming in Ningaloo Reef

Turtle swimming, Ningaloo Reef 

“The best thing that we can do then is to say; ‘Stop, drop, and act like a rock,’’’ Neri laughs.

Once the guides are certain the turtle has commenced laying, visitors may silently ‘commando-crawl’ towards the turtle from behind, peering into the nest to witness the soft eggs landing in the sandy nest chamber.

Around 60 days later comes nature’s cutest stampede. The baby turtle hatchlings will struggle out of their nest and, programmed by nature, will flap and scurry across the sand. Sometimes they take beach-goers by surprise.

“You’ll just be sitting on the beach enjoying the sunset and suddenly out of the corner of your eye, you’ll just see a little bit of movement coming down the beach,” Neri says. “Sometimes the hatchlings are erupting en-masse out of the sand, all falling over each other and getting flipped around, and then they’re all rushing down to the water.”

Neri explains the babies are compelled to run towards the light reflecting off the ocean. It’s essential not to use torches or lighting as this will disorientate the turtles. Touching turtles is also detrimental, and hatchlings need to walk across the sand to the sea in order to establish their navigational systems needed in adult life.

Even outside nesting season, turtles are present in the shallow lagoons here all year. For those that prefer to see their turtles swimming, Exmouth Adventure Co. offers a Half-day Sea Kayak and Snorkel Tour in the wildlife-rich Bundegi Nature Reserve.

Aerial view of people kayaking on a tour with Exmouth Adventure Co. in Exmouth

Exmouth Adventure Co, Exmouth

Like people, sea turtles sometimes experience health difficulties, and Ningaloo Aquarium and Discovery Centre in Exmouth is sometimes able to assist. Aquarist Shania Bolen explains that the back-of-house turtle rehabilitation centre can care for up to four sea turtle patients. In the coming months, she hopes to add educational tours.

The turtles being cared for here are mostly green turtles, but also include loggerhead and critically endangered hawksbill turtles. They may have flipper injuries, internal parasites, or ‘floater syndrome,’ which prevents turtles from submerging.

“What’s exciting is that we get to create community events for the releases of each patient,” Shania says. “There’s no greater feeling in the world than seeing them get back home, and there are definitely a few tears.”

Visitors can drop in to the Ningaloo Aquarium and Discovery Centre, and check if any turtle releases are scheduled. The centre can also make bookings for turtle eco-education tours at Jurabi Turtle Centre conducted by DBCA between December and March. Shania also guides these tours, adding that visitors can expect a magical experience.


Beach in Coral Bay at sunset

Beach in Coral Bay

“February is going to be a really amazing chance for people to see the hatchlings,” Shania says. “We’re probably going to see them every single night. We usually have the beach to ourselves as the sun sets and the turtles emerge around us. I don’t think that experience can be compared to anything else.”

Feature by Carolyn Beasley 

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