Why you need to try snorkelling when visiting the Tweed Coast

Home to a huge array of amazing sea life, the Cook Island Aquatic Reserve off Fingal Head is a Tweed Valley expedition not to be missed. Turtle-spotting is just the beginning!

Swim alongside gentle sea creatures in Northern NSW
  • Vanessa Frey
  • August 2019

The sea has its own soundscape, which amplifies when you’re submerged. There’s the lyrical ripple of water in motion. The Darth Vader-like breathing as air is sucked through a snorkel. And today, as the weather would have it, the hail of raindrops spattering the ocean’s surface like liquid bullets. In between the ambient effects is silence; a space so devoid of distraction, it heightens another sense: sight.

Serendipitous, really, because there’s much to observe in the 80-hectare Cook Island Aquatic Reserve, just off Fingal Head on NSW’s upper North Coast. The rocky reefs and coral gardens of this protected zone are home to a cornucopia of marine life, including leopard and grey nurse sharks, dolphins, manta rays, technicolour reef fish and curious crustaceans and molluscs. Above sea level, nesting seabirds frequent the islet, while its surrounding waters form part of the “humpback highway” during whale migration season starting in early winter.

The remote Cook Island Aquatic Reserve is a wildlife hotspot
The remote Cook Island Aquatic Reserve is a wildlife hotspot.

But on this trip, run by Watersports Guru, I’m here for a close encounter with three of the world’s seven species of sea turtles – hawksbills, loggerheads and the more common greens. Some of them, I’m told, are more than 100 years old. During the 15-minute boat ride to Cook Island, travelling along the Tweed River and out through the heads to turn south past Fingal Beach, our marine biologist guide, Jessica Lambe, regales us with all sorts of trivia.

Green turtles, for example, can weigh up to 200 kilograms and hold their breath for hours by slowing their heart rate. The loggerhead is facing extinction due to habitat destruction, commercial fishing and environmental pollution – to these placid reptiles, plastic bags look just like the jellyfish they eat. And global warming is resulting in rising numbers of female turtles, whose sex is determined by the temperature of the sand before the eggs hatch. Who knew?

Jessica’s fascinating, slightly disturbing, commentary is interrupted when we spot a lone humpback cruising the shallows between the narrow spit of land and Cook Island. Hot on its fluke is a pod of inshore bottlenose dolphins frolicking in the boat’s wake.

Curious bottlenose dolphins often follow the tour boat
Curious bottlenose dolphins often follow the tour boat.

By the time we arrive at our mooring, I feel like we’ve already had an eyeful despite not yet seeing a single turtle. Geared up with goggles, snorkel and flippers, I clomp my way to the side of the boat, sit indelicately on the edge and plop myself in, leaving the backward-roll technique to the more agile among the group.

During the hour or so I spend snorkelling – at times floating serenely on top and at others duck-diving for a macro view of this biodiverse world – I spy a wobbegong stationed on the seabed, a manta ray with its billowing black cloak and several green turtles. At depths of one to 10 metres, with sunlight piercing the water, visibility is good. Getting close, though never encroaching (Watersports Guru has a “no-touch policy”), I can make out the details in the turtles’ thick, leathery skin, inky eyes with drooping lids and moss-covered shell plates. With their slow, considered movements and wise old looks, I can’t help but feel reverence towards these dinosaurs of the sea.

The green sea turtle's shell can grow over 1 metre long
The green sea turtle's shell can grow over 1 metre long.

Back on the boat, heading towards the shore, I glance over my shoulder for one last “turtle” sighting. I may not have seen a loggerhead or hawksbill this time but, with a little imagination, that rocky outcrop – once called Turtle Island – does indeed resemble the head and neck of a turtle poking out from its domed shell. It’s the perfect protection for these vulnerable animals, as is the aquatic sanctuary below.

Need to know

The snorkelling with turtles tour by Watersports Guru in the Cook Island Aquatic Reserve on the far north coast of NSW costs AUD $119 for adults and AUD $99 for kids over the age of five. If you are lucky, you might spot bottlenose dolphins during the 15-minute boat trip there and back and, from June to October, humpback whales.