Saturday, 8 December 2018

A holiday to remember on Bundaberg's Coral Coast

A female flatback turtle, covering her nest chamber with sand on Mon Repos Beach.

I kicked off the start of this summer with a short break up at Bargara, where I had a fantastic time! I’ll get to all the interesting animals and plants I saw in a minute, but first, let me just say how much I liked the actual region. Bundaberg struck me as a city with the perfect mix of old and new; lovely heritage buildings and structures and a laid-back attitude are complemented by the modern conveniences of good roads, internet access and seven-days-a-week shopping. And while I can see new suburbs popping up here and there, the region isn’t suffering the same intense overcrowding that Brisbane is at present. I loved it! 

And now back to the wildlife! Here are some of the creatures and places that will be living in my heart for much longer than my holiday lasted. 

Sea turtles
If there’s one animal that Bundaberg's Coral Coast is particularly famous for, it’s the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta). Researchers estimate that approximately half of the South Pacific Ocean’s loggerheads nest on the stretch of coastline centred on stunning Mon Repos Beach, and late spring and early summer is when the females can be seen coming ashore. 

Loggerhead turtle, potentially in her first nesting season.
The best way to experience the turtles is to book a tour with the Mon Repos Turtle Centre rangers and volunteers. For the incredibly cheap price of $12.80 per adult, you will head out onto the beach after dark and—with the guidance of a ranger—witness the magnificent moment a female turtle lays her eggs in the sand. Alternatively, if you visit later in the season, you may be present when the baby turtles hatch and make a dash for the wide blue yonder out to sea.

I loved the tour so much that I did it two nights in a row. On the first night, we met a 48-year old female loggerhead that has spent her adult life living off Heron Reef, and who has nested on Mon Repos since the year 2000. On the second night, our groups watched over two untagged, presumed first-time nesters, one of whose clutch of eggs we helped move to a higher location in the dunes. 

Mon Repos Beach is closed to the public between 6am and 6pm to protect the turtles from disturbance, but at 5pm on an afternoon with a very high tide, I was also fortunate to witness them coming ashore in the daylight. There were researchers on the beach gathered around one turtle in particular, and it was a gorgeous flatback turtle (Natator depressus), a small minority of which also nest on this beach with the loggerheads. 

Unlike other sea turtles with large distributions, flatbacks nest only in Australia.

It’s hard to explain, but there was something about the turtles that kept making me feel quite emotional. Each of them were around my age or older, and it felt like they and I were two equal beings whose paths were crossing at a unique and special point in time, before we returned to our respective ordinary lives, me in the suburbs of Brisbane, and them on a remote outer reef shelf somewhere.

A mixed group of noddies resting on casuarina trees at Elliot Heads.

The coast off Bundaberg is where the Great Barrier Reef starts at its southern end, and for me, there was no better reminder of this than seeing my first flock of noddies, a quintessential reef bird. Mostly they were black noddies (Anous minutus), but a few birds in the group were the browner-toned common noddies (A. stolidus)

When I encounter an animal for the first time, I love learning about its personality, and I found the noddies to be very curious and friendly birds. The first day I saw them at Elliot Heads, one came and landed a short distance from me as I sat in a rock pool, and on the second day, they danced in the wind all around me as they approached from a distant sandbar. 

Mon Repos Beach is surrounded by reserves through which a variety of tracks exist.

Mon Repos Beach
It’s a big call, but I’m going to make it: Mon Repos is the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. When I first laid eyes on it the afternoon of my arrival, I instantly understood why the turtles of the South Pacific have this location saved in their biological GPS as a favourite place. It’s not just the turtles that travel far and wide to get to Mon Repos though, as on each of my daylight visits, a whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) patrolled the creek mouth at the southern end of the beach, and this bird would have flown here from Siberia. 

You can be sure that this human from Brisbane will make the pilgrimage back to Mon Repos sometime as well. 

The vegetated sand dunes at the Elliot Heads were recently islands, and are off limits to visitors.

Elliot Heads
I had never heard of or planned to visit Elliot Heads before my trip to Bundaberg—one morning after snorkelling, I just decided to jump in the car and explore a little further, subsequently stumbling across this wonderful place. It’s main feature is a river mouth that in recent times has undergone a huge infilling of sand, and strolling out onto the shimmering, vast emptiness made me feel like I was exploring a beautiful desert. A particularly breath-taking sight were many thousands of common terns (Sterna hirundo) resting on a sandbar in the river, especially when the incoming tide required them to take flight like some distant, silent white cloud.

Wood moth adults do not eat and live only for a few daysor even shorter, in this case.

In the coastal woodland behind Mon Repos beach one morning, I heard a squeaking noise coming from a dead tree to my left and turned to see what looked like a grey butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus) attacking a small bird. Except it wasn’t a small bird, it was an enormous moth! On one hand, I was horrified to see the poor wood moth (Endoxyla sp.) get torn apart while still alive, but I was also fascinated to watch how the butcherbird prevented its escape by methodically removing its wings and wedging the still-wriggling body into a bark crevice. Another beautiful moth seen while spotlighting was the fruit-piercing moth (Eudocima fullonia).

A painted lady sunning herself on Mon Repos Beach. INSET: blue tigers.

Every bit of bush around Bundaberg is alive with butterflies at the moment! Abundant blue tigers (Tirumala hamata), common crows (Euploea core) and blue moon butterflies (Hypolimnas bolina) all offered ample beauty during my visit there, but my favourite encounter was with a painted lady (Vanessa kershawi) on Mon Repos beach one morning. 

Tree heliotropes occur as far south as the Fraser Coast, on some islands in the Great Sandy Strait.

One thing that really amazed me on my visit to Bundaberg was how I could drive a few hours away from my home in Brisbane and suddenly find myself in a totally different climate. A good example of this were the tree heliotropes (Heliotropium foetherianum) growing on Mon Repos Beach, as this species is typical of coral cays and tropical shores. 

Sarcophyton soft corals are an outstanding feature
of the rockpools along the Bundaberg coastline.
Barolin Rocks
I had hoped to go snorkelling off the coast here one morning, but the water visibility during my stay was shocking. That didn’t stop me from jumping into several beautiful rock pools for a closer look however, where I was surrounded by gorgeous soft corals (Alcyonacea) and tropical fish such as the Ward’s damsel (Pomacentrus wardi) and bubblefin wrasse (Halichoeres nigrescens).

The turtles nesting at Mon Repos come from as far away as Indonesia.

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