Marine turtle biology, research and conservation

Marine Turtle Breeding and Migration Atlas Project

Decades of turtle tagging studies on nesting beaches, courtship areas and dispersed foraging areas throughout the world has identified the need for a tool to display the spatial and temporal variability in the distribution and abundance of marine turtle nesting, linked to migration data connecting the nesting populations to their widely dispersed foraging areas.

Collection of data started as early as 1968 and expanded internationally while Dr Col Limpus (Chief Scientific Officer, Department of Environment and Science) served as Scientific Councillor for Marine Turtles for the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), often referred to as the Bonn Convention, an environmental treaty that operates within the United Nations Environment Programme.

The Marine Turtle Breeding and Migration Atlas Project continues with collaboration between the Queensland Government and the CMS. This is a living project that will continue to add records and improvements in accuracy, presentation, and analysis of data. The data base is comprehensive for nesting data for the western Pacific Ocean, South East Asia, Indian Ocean, African Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean Sea. However, data for the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific Oceans is limited.

The atlas allows for a mapped display of:

  • nesting distribution and abundance by species
  • migration between breeding areas and foraging areas based on flipper tag recoveries, and breeding migration between breeding and foraging areas and movements within foraging areas based on satellite telemetry.

The mapped results can be downloaded in jpg format.

How to use the atlas

  1. Select your area of interest by either:
    • Zooming or panning using your mouse or by pinching on your mobile device
    • Entering a place name like “Bundaberg” in Find address or place field
  2. Turn on map layers by ticking them in the Layer List menu
  3. Find out more about a point on the map by clicking or tapping either the circles or lines on the map. Click the right arrow symbol at the top of this window to see more information about the area you clicked or tapped on.
  4. Find a particular species of turtle in the Filter tool
    • Select an item in the Species dropdown
    • Click the filter toggle button
  5. Zoom to areas of interest by selecting the Bookmark tool, and click a place name like “Mon Repos”
  6. You can print a map by selecting the Print tool icon and clicking print.

Access the Marine Turtle Breeding and Migration Atlas.

*All efforts have been made by CMS and the department to ensure data approvals have been sought by the relevant data custodian. The mapped data is displayed for education and communication purposes only. Any access to the original raw data cannot be retrieved through this portal and would need approval from the relevant original data provider.

This Atlas contributes to the initiative championed by the Convention on Migratory Species to develop a Global Atlas on Animal Migration.

Researchers can contact the department via email at to organise for display of turtle census and migration data via this App.

Queensland Marine Turtle Strategy

Six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles have been recorded breeding and foraging in Queensland.

Maintaining healthy marine turtle populations is important for Queensland’s biodiversity, cultural and social values and contributes significantly to the Queensland economy through tourism. Marine turtles play an important ecological role in the shaping and regulation of coastal marine communities by contributing to the maintenance of healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs, helping balance marine food webs and facilitating nutrient cycling. Turtles feature prominently within the cultural beliefs and practices of many First Nations coastal communities in Queensland. They are also an iconic species and key attraction for Queensland tourism, particularly at Mon Repos, Heron Island and Lady Elliott Island.

Queensland has the longest history of marine turtle conservation and management in Australia commencing in 1932. In 1968, Queensland became the first jurisdiction in the world to protect all marine turtle species within its borders. More than 50 years of continuous marine turtle research and monitoring has occurred at Mon Repos, near Bundaberg.

The Queensland Government continues to commit to turtle conservation through the Reef 2050 Plan, the Recovery Plan for Marine Turtles in Australia 2017-2027 and implementing the Queensland Marine Turtle Conservation Strategy 2021–2031 (PDF, 2.2 MB) . The Queensland Government strategy identifies actions to ensure the long-term viability of the marine turtle species that nest in Queensland and the turtles that forage and migrate in adjacent Australian waters.

The strategy builds on the important work already being delivered by the Queensland and Australian governments, First Nations people, natural resource management groups, non-government organisations, research institutions and community-based groups to research, monitor and protect marine turtles.

To find out more, read the Queensland Marine Turtle Conservation Strategy 2021–2031 (PDF, 2.2 MB) .

Queensland Marine Turtle Field Guide

Queensland Marine Turtle Field Guide

The 30 page colour Queensland Marine Turtle Field Guide (PDF, 1.8 MB) has been developed as part of the $7 million Nest to Ocean Turtle Protection Program jointly funded by the Australian and Queensland Governments.

It contains identification keys, photographs, diagrams, survey tips and details of the six species of marine turtles that visit Queensland beaches. The guide also provides valuable information about predators like foxes, dogs and feral pigs.

Turtle watching

Marine turtles have nested on parts of Queensland's coast for thousands of years.

To watch a marine turtle nest is to gain an insight into one of nature's rituals. But this ritual can easily be disturbed.

A marine turtle can be aged 30-50 before it begins to breed. Combined with this, the breeding season might be once in only two to eight years.

Also, hatchlings have a low chance of survival, with perhaps only one in 1000 possibly reaching maturity.

All these factors make the sea turtle particularly vulnerable to human interference. People's activities have had a substantial impact on all turtle species.

When you go turtle watching, please make sure you follow recommended behaviour around nesting turtles and hatchlings. If you do this, you will enjoy a memorable experience while respecting these animals in their natural habitat.

Where to see turtles

Marine turtles nest on many beaches along the south Queensland coast on most nights from December to February.

Turtles are common on many of the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef and in some sheltered parts of the Queensland coast including Bowling Green Bay south of Townsville, Shoalwater and Corio Bays in central Queensland, Sandy Strait and in east Moreton Bay.

The Capricorn/Bunker Groups of islands on the Great Barrier Reef are one of the world's major breeding areas for green and loggerhead turtles.

North West, Hoskyn and Wreck Islands are the most important green turtle nesting areas, while Wreck, Erskine and Masthead are the most important loggerhead turtle rookeries.

Nearby Bundaberg coast also supports the Pacific region's largest breeding population of loggerhead turtles.

Resorts on Heron Island and Lady Elliot Island and the Heron Island Research Station allow visitors to stay overnight and go turtle watching.

Camping by permit is allowed on Lady Musgrave, Tryon, Masthead and North West Islands. Wreck and Hoskyn Islands are closed to the public.

Near Bundaberg on Queensland's central coast, Mon Repos supports the largest concentration of nesting sea turtles on the east Australian mainland. Nesting turtles at Mon Repos include the loggerhead, flatback, and green. At the peak of the nesting season, more than ten (mostly loggerheads) come ashore to nest on this 1.6km long sandy beach.

A good place to see these nesting turtles and emerging hatchlings is Mon Repos Conservation Park or through visiting the Mon Repos Turtle Centre. Bookings are essential and can be made from 1 September through the Bundaberg Visitor Information Centre.

Experienced staff and facilities for turtle watching including an information centre will ensure you get the most from your encounter with a sea turtle at Mon Repos.

Access to the nesting beach at Mon Repos is controlled. This ensures the turtles aren't disturbed.

Bitumen roads provide easy access to the park from Bundaberg and nearby beach resorts. A number of motels and caravan parks are within a few kilometres of Mon Repos.

How to find nesting turtles

Adult marine turtles are timid. Please remember these animals do not leave the sea for most of their lives.

During the nesting process, turtles are easily disturbed by light, noise and movement - particularly when leaving the water, crossing the beach and digging the nest.

Nesting turtles are best seen after dark, from November to January.

Your footwear should be suitable for walking along a sandy beach at night. Carry a rain jacket.

Unless you are at Mon Repos, to find a turtle walk along the beach about high tide mark looking for turtle tracks about one metre wide.

Be prepared to wait. Sometimes a turtle can attempt to come ashore several times in one night.

As the female turtle approaches the shore, she is very easily disturbed and might turn back. Keep clear of her, stand still, wait quietly and don't shine a torch. Her crawl ashore and up the beach can take up to an hour.

To dig the body pit, she will use all four flippers to form a large hole. Wait patiently, stand well back and keep torches off.

Once the pit is finished, she will use her hind flippers to dig out a vertical pear-shaped egg chamber about 60 cm deep. Even now the turtle is still easily disturbed so watch quietly from behind without lights and don't touch her.

Once settled into laying, the turtle isn't disturbed by soft lights. Laying eggs takes 10-20 minutes.

She will then cover her nest with her flippers. Stand clear of flying sand and give the turtle space to complete nesting.

You can now turn on your lights to watch the turtle and take limited flash photos.

Only use a low wattage torch. If at Mon Repos, listen to staff and follow their instructions. They will help you enjoy the experience while looking after the turtles.

As she crawls back to her ocean home, keep your torches off as she can be disoriented by light. You can follow her quietly to the water as long as another turtle isn't coming in to lay.

Please be patient while the turtle performs her nesting ritual which can take several hours. The larger the crowd, the more likely the turtle will be disturbed.

How to find hatchlings

Emerging hatchlings can be seen from mid-January until late March. Hatchlings usually leave their nests at night.

In the nest, hatchlings break from their eggs within a few hours of one another. It takes them about 24 hours to straighten out and leave the eggshell.

As a group, the hatchlings climb upwards in a burst of activity. They breathe the air between the sand grains as they climb. It can take them two days to reach the surface.

Hatchlings usually emerge onto the surface in a rush, mostly at night. It takes them only 5-10 minutes to emerge.

Keep clear of the nest when the hatchlings are emerging. If you are too close, you can push sand into the nest, restricting the progress of hatchlings below.

Keep your lights off at this stage! Torches and lamps can easily disorient hatchlings, hindering their race to the ocean.

Don't bring any pets. Pets are banned on Mon Repos Regional Park.

From the nest, the hatchlings will race down to the ocean. Keep out of their way, don't shine lights at them or use flash photography. If you are at Mon Repos, staff will use lights to illuminate the hatchlings without disorienting them.

Don't handle hatchlings! They are not toys. They are responding to many environmental cues as they cross the beach.

Hatchlings will reach the water in a few minutes. But once there, they can still be attracted to land by lights. If so, they can spend more time near the shore where sharks and fish are major predators. Keep your torches off to make sure they don't come back.

Turtle monitoring

If you see a sea turtle nesting or at sea, please note where and when you saw it. If possible, also try to identify the species and how many turtles you saw.

If you find a sea turtle with a tag clamped on its flipper, write down:

  • the number stamped on the tag
  • when, how and where the turtle was caught or seen
  • what happened to the turtle
  • your name and address.

Don't remove the tag from the turtle unless it has died.

Send this information (with the tag if recovered from a dead turtle) to:
Queensland Turtle Research
Threatened Species Unit
Wildlife and Threatened Species Operations
Department of Environment and Science
GPO Box 2454
Brisbane Q 4001

Please report all sightings of any sick, injured or dead sea turtles by calling 1300 130 372 at any time.

Increased sand temperatures

Increased sand temperatures at Mon Repos are affecting turtle hatchling success.

In 2019, midday surface sand temperatures at the top of one dune have been breaking records – from 72.4° Celsius on Tuesday (January 31), up to 75° on Wednesday (February 1) and 77° on Thursday (February 2).

To combat this, the department's researchers used shade cloth to keep the sand temperature cool enough for turtle nests. More than 300 clutches of eggs were relocated to shaded areas of the beach in one nesting season.

Sand surface temperatures under the shade cloth were around 30° cooler than on the exposed dunes and the department's researchers were confident that at nest depth, which is up to 60cm below the sand, temperatures remained lower than the critical 32°.

This simple idea makes a real difference to the numbers of hatchling turtles produced at Mon Repos which is critical to the survival of the loggerhead turtle.

More than 1300 clutches of eggs hatch in total each nesting season. Mon Repos is of particular importance as a nesting site for the endangered loggerhead turtle, which lays around 125 eggs per clutch. Green turtles and flatbacks also use the rookery, laying 115 eggs and 50 eggs per clutch, respectively.

Turtle nesting season usually occurs from November to January and hatching commences in January with late-season hatchlings emerging during May.

Sea Turtle Sensitive Area Model Code

Learn more about how the model code can be used to avoid the adverse impacts of artificial lighting on sea turtle nesting and activity.

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