An Enchanting Island Encounter With a Tiny Turtle

Wildlife thrives on Australia's Heron Island

It's sunset on Heron Island, a beautiful sunset that wraps around this tiny island off the east coast of Australia. Only I can't watch it because I'm waiting to witness one of nature's small wonders: turtle hatchlings making their mad dash across no-man's land to the ocean. It's the end of the turtle-hatchling season, and many of us at the Heron Island resort have spent our early evenings pacing and scanning the sand for any sign of movement, to no avail.

This is my third and final night here. So for me, this is it.

It is on Heron that I discover two things about ecotourism that the innocent traveler should know: One is that nature doesn't always cooperate with your schedule. The other is that the whole point of this kind of travel is to learn something, even if it's not always pretty.

Heron is lovely, however. As the only island right on the Great Barrier Reef, off the southern coast of Queensland, it came highly recommended by my Aussie friends who search out less-touristy places. And while tourists do go to this tiny green disk in a pale turquoise sea, the island is not overrun with them.

Heron is fairly remote. With two flights and a choppy two-hour boat ride, it took me half a day to get there from Sydney. When I stumbled gratefully up the boardwalk, I felt I had really earned my stay there.

My main reason for going was to try to see turtle hatchlings. But as I found out, Heron immerses you in all kinds of marine and bird life. In fact, birds rule. That was apparent from the first moment on the island. The official ''greeter'' is a striking green heron with pale-green legs, who stared at us disdainfully.

Over the course of the next few days, I got used to black noddy terns walking boldly through the dining room. And I learned to walk on the sides of the sandy paths to keep from being hit by the low-flying ''noddies.'' They're beautiful, soaring over the water, but haven't developed a graceful landing style. If you hear a thunk - or feel a thud - that's a noddy using any available surface to stop itself.

Aside from such runway dramas, the island, which you can walk around in an hour, is peaceful. There isn't much on it: one resort (tastefully designed to blend in with the scenery), a marine research station, and a splendid variety of animals. Various naturalists gave talks over the few days I was there, so when the weather was iffy, I just learned more.

Turtle eggs in the sand

One guide, Liz, told us that an average of 500 loggerhead and green turtles arrive on the shores of Heron between November and February to lay eggs. They laboriously haul themselves up the sand to sheltered areas under the trees, where they dig egg chambers into which they lay up to 100 Ping-Pong-ball-size eggs. Then the turtle flips sand over the cavity and makes her way back to the sea. She repeats the process several times a summer.

About two months later, the eggs hatch. When the sand gets cool enough, the ones on the bottom start agitating, and that starts the whole lot of them pushing their way up. In a nice bit of family solidarity, the critters on top wait until all are ready. Then they boil up out of the hole and dash to the sea.

Cruising overhead, waiting for them to emerge, are salivating gulls. In the water, sharks are waiting. Supposedly only 1 in 5,000 hatchlings lives to adulthood.

Since I can only watch for the hatchlings at night, I spend my days learning about other animals and snorkeling. The beauty of Heron is that 18 good diving sites are a mere five-minute boat ride away.

A trip to a site called Bommie yielded glimpses of what the hatchlings might see later: slowly moving, majestic turtles; sharks; schools of salmon-colored fish; tiny turquoise fish; as well as brightly colored waving coral.

One afternoon, Liz led a group of us on a reef walk. We grabbed sneakers from a communal bin and a pole for balance, and walked right on the reef. She pulled up electric-blue starfish, long sand-colored sea anemones, and squirming crabs.

It's easy to become as involved with the bird life as with the marine animals; you're surrounded by them both. During the southern summer (December through February), 150,000 noddies come to Heron.

At high season, the racket can be deafening and the smell of guano overpowering. And the wedge-tailed shearwater (or mutton bird) digs burrows under the resort bungalows and makes calls like cats, dogs, or babies - all night long. That can drive a few guests nuts.

So can the occasional sight of a noddy chick who's fallen out of its nest. Mama and Papa bird's flat webbed feet are great for landing on water, but not great for building nests. This is a common occurrence, says Liz.

On a more cheerful note, she shows us the odd trees that inhabit the island: The sandpaper fig, whose scratchy leaves were used by Aborigines long ago to finish off woodwork. Then there's the ''tree that walks,'' a tree with tube-like external roots that are stronger in the front and weaker in the back. Over time, it gradually pulls itself forward.

Of course, some guests could care less about flora and fauna. They are happy playing tennis and swimming in the pool. But the resort seems to transform many of its guests into enthusiastic amateur scientists.

Finally, some hatchlings

It's now 6:15 p.m., my last night on Heron. The sky is getting dark and I'm still searching. Suddenly, a woman on the beach starts waving her arms at me. At the same time, a sea gull flashes down and flies off with something wriggling in its beak. I dash over and there they are!

The hatchlings look like dark windup toys; five inches long and scrambling fast. The last 10 are coming out of the egg chamber. These stragglers have a hard time climbing up what is by now a high ledge, so I lift them up. Some head off in the wrong direction, and I pick those up, too, and set them straight.

We shoo away the gulls from the hatchlings on the sand. They fly over and pick off some just starting to swim. To assist the last hatchling, I wade in as far as I can to escort him to where the reef starts, shooing off several gulls. My little hatchling swims strongly, arching his neck out of the water periodically to take a breath.

I wave goodbye as the water gets too deep. I trudge back to shore a triumphant woman.

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