Turtle Watching

The Marine Park gives visitors some special opportunities to closely observe the life cycle of one of nature’s most ancient and fascinating creatures, the marine turtle.

Six of the world's seven species of marine turtles are found in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and it is a critical foraging and nesting area for four of these species. Globally, marine turtle numbers are rapidly declining which makes this Australian ‘nursery’ even more significant. But our populations are by no means safe.

It’s vital that you and your clients continue to be particularly careful when boating in areas known to have turtle populations or when you’re watching turtle nesting. Through your interpretive programs, you can also educate about the plight of these incredible creatures and the need for conservation initiatives.

Responsible Reef Practices

In general

  • Brief your clients on turtle conservation, appropriate behaviour, and relevant rules and regulations. Ensure you have appropriately trained or experienced staff to conduct the briefings.
  • Whenever you are viewing turtles, ensure a staff member is monitoring the behaviour of the turtles.
  • Include key turtle information in interpretation programs for all clients.
  • Be on the look out for surfacing turtles in areas known to have them (such as shallow reef flats and seagrass beds). Travel slowly in these areas, with no wake, especially if you have sighted a turtle within 30 metres of your vessel.
  • Anchor away from seagrass beds and avoid overnight anchoring near turtle nesting beaches during the nesting and hatching season.
  • Never touch, grab or lean on turtles, hatchlings or eggs.
  • Do not try to feed turtles.
  • Do not light camp fires on turtle nesting beaches.
  • Advise other visitors to keep domestic pets away from turtle nesting beaches.

When viewing from boats

  • If a turtle is close to the vessel, engage neutral and allow the animal to move freely.
  • Use wide and deep channels, reducing the likelihood of collision.
  • Communicate with any other vessels in the vicinity of a turtle to avoid unduly disturbing it.
  • Do not encircle or trap turtles with vessels. Allow an escape route.
  • Do not drive your vessel over a turtle.
  • Do not pursue turtles if they try to avoid the vessel or flee the area.

In the water

  • Keep your distance from turtles, allowing them to continue their normal activities. For the best experience, swim calmly and slowly, and position yourself to the side of the turtle.
  • Do not cross in front of a turtle or make it alter its course.
  • Never corner a turtle – always leave a large escape route.
  • Avoid loud noises and sudden movements.
  • Never touch, grab or try to ride turtles.
  • Never approach a turtle that is feeding, sleeping, resting or mating.
  • If a turtle becomes agitated, back away. If a turtle moves away, don’t pursue it.
  • During night dives, shine torches and other lights on the shell only, not the head. Avoid flash photography, especially head on.

When viewing turtle nesting

  • Keep the group size small, for most situations have less than 20 people per guide.
  • Do not approach a turtle emerging from the water or moving up the beach.
  • On sighting a turtle emerging from the water, keep still and turn off all lights until laying begins.
  • Do not alter the environment in any way.
  • Limit the use of light by turning torches off whenever possible and viewing with ambient light. Turtles may get confused by artificial light and may not finish nesting.
  • Use low wattage torches with red cellophane or a filter over the bulb.
  • Never shine lights directly onto turtles – angle the light towards the sand at the side of the turtle.
  • Stay well clear (at least two metres) of turtles nesting, covering their nest and moving up or down the beach. Never stand in their pathway or make them alter their course.
  • Keep still and quiet. Sudden movements will disturb the turtles.
  • Remain behind turtles as they dig and lay their eggs; do not stand in front or where they can see you.
  • Restrict use of flash photography to a minimum and only take flash photos during the egg laying phase. Always take these photos from behind the turtle.
  • Turn off all lights and do not use flash photography when the turtle is returning to the sea.
  • Remove lights and back away from the turtles if they appear stressed.
  • Watch where you step to avoid crushing eggs or hatchlings.
  • Do not disturb or dig up nests.

When viewing hatching

  • Stay well clear (at least two metres) of nests where hatchlings are emerging.
  • Watch where you step – you may accidentally crush hatchlings underfoot or cover them with sand.
  • Limit the use of light and never shine lights directly onto hatchlings. Hatchlings may become confused by artificial light and may not make it to the ocean.
  • Use low wattage torches with red cellophane or a filter over the bulb.
  • Do not shine torches out to sea when hatchlings are in the water – this may cause the hatchlings to return to shore.
  • Allow hatchlings to dig themselves out of the nest and run to the sea without disturbance or assistance.
  • Do not touch or handle hatchlings.
  • Never interfere with natural events (for example, rescuing hatchlings from seabirds or predatory fish).


  • Please report entangled, stranded or dead turtles.

Marine Parks Legal Requirements

  • You must not ‘take’ turtles or their eggs in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park unless you have a Marine Parks permit.  Note: ‘Take’ includes removing, gathering, killing or interfering with, or attempting to take. There may be special arrangements for Traditional Owners.
  • You must notify the Secretary of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities within seven days of becoming aware that an activity you undertook without a permit resulted in an unintentional death, injury, trading, taking, keeping or moving of a species specified in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
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