Down in the Sand

Bells Beach timeline

Bells Beach in Point Samson doesn’t show up on Google maps. After several attempts to reach the beach that hit private roads or entrances to mine sites, I arrived at the sand of a pristine and deserted shore.Boat beach, Point Samson

Shortly after sunrise, I was met by the program coordinator where we assembled with the other trainee volunteers.

You see, one does not simply just walk onto a beach and start monitoring marine turtles. Or, in this case, their tracks. It takes training.

Training starts with a hidden backpack. A backpack for volunteers inside a locked metal box. Hidden behind a sign. The backpack contains essential items including a clipboard, sheets of paper for recording turtle activity, a GPS tracker, a tape-measure and other important items.

It turns out Bells Beach wasn’t the pristine beach, but instead about a 10 minute walk away over sand dunes, hills, and long grass.

Our very first job on the beach involved a large stick.

One of the most important things with tracking the activity of marine turtles is being able to distinguish what is new and is old activity. To do this, you need to establish a timeline in the sand.

To establish a timeline on a beach, a volunteer takes the stick and marks a line in the sand over the top of the line drawn the previous day. Any tracks that cross over the top of the previous day’s line are new. The fresh line drawn resets the timeline for the next day.

What happens when you find a fresh track? That’s where the items in the backpack come in useful.

Turtle Tracks

First, turtles leave two tracks: an emerge track and a return track. The names are quite self explanatory: when the turtle emerges from the ocean and leaves a track up the beach that is the emerge track. As the turtle returns to the ocean it is a return track.

Telling the two apart is vital for finding if a turtle has nested, and for a new volunteer this means getting down in the sand. Because of the way turtles almost swim through the sand, they push the sand behind them.

Why care which track is which? Turtles don’t necessarily decisively emerge from the ocean, make a nest, and then return. Sometimes they might try digging several pits for nesting. Sometimes they will traverse about the beach before returning to the water. If you follow their emerge track you could be led on a wild goose chase. Or, in this case, a wild marine turtle track.

By following their return track, you find their last activity. A turtle doesn’t nest and then wander about for a while longer.

West Pilbara Turtle Program volunteersAs volunteers, we then had to identify the breed of turtle whose tracks we had found. This is where the tape-measure would come in useful — to distinguish a flatback turtle from a loggerhead, green or hawksbill turtle. Each turtle leaves different tracks, which also differ in size — so when in doubt, down in the sand you go.

Nine times out of ten, the turtle is a flatback on Bell’s Beach. 100% of the turtles I recorded on the beach were flatback, but just the same — you have to be sure.

False Crawl

With a turtle identified by breed, we had to record if it nested. A false crawl is when a turtle emerges from the ocean, and doesn’t nest — for whatever reason. Sometimes a turtle might start to dig, hit a root or a rock and be put off. Sometimes a turtle might just not feel like. Sometimes a turtle could get spooked, and be frightened away before they lay their eggs.

But sometimes, a turtle did nest…

The journey from Karratha

have ute, will travel

I landed in Karratha on Tuesday morning on my adventure to save the turtles. Stepping off the plane shortly before midday, I was immediately hit by a wave of heat.

When asked if I’d been to Karratha before, I had joked that the furthest north I’d been before was Perth’s suburb of Yanchep. While that wasn’t true (I’d been to Cervantes which is 200km north of Perth) there’s a big difference between Cervantes and Karratha.

A short while after landing I’d already grabbed my bag, and found my hire car. Except it wasn’t the car I’d expected.

Instead of the 4WD SUV I had requested, I was to be driving a slightly battered ute that seemed to be the vehicle of choice for a region where 90% of people worked on the mines.

After figuring out how to drive it, I was on my way. I had no satnav, and my phone battery was dead, so relied on remembering the directions I’d been given by the booking desk.

Had the directions been to go left-right-left? Or left-right-right? The name on the road sign sounded familiar, but was that because it was where I was headed, or was it just mentioned, and I should have been going the other way?

The radio in my ute didn’t work, so I had to amuse myself. It’s funny how few songs you can remember when you just want to sing to pass the time.

But I drove. And I drove. I drove some more. And after a while I started to wonder, was I even going the right way? How could I tell? There were no signs, other than the markers counting down to the next town.

Pulling into a rest stop in the hope of finding someone to ask, the only other people around were some grey nomads with a caravan. Unconvinced they’d know the way to Point Samson, either, I left them in peace.

There would be somewhere I could stop. A petrol station. Another town. Something.

I kept going.

As the marker for the next town counted down I scanned ahead for signs of civilisation. 5km came. And it went. Without any town. The markers started counting down to the next place, more than another 100km away.

There was nothing else for it. I’d driven for an hour or more already, but there was no way I was driving any further. I turned the ute around, put my foot down and drove back to Karratha — to the petrol station that was a short distance outside of the city.

The directions really must have been the left-right-left, and I had been driving in completely the wrong direction. Luckily, another traveller in the petrol station was heading the same way as me, and told me I could just follow him.

Wolf Creek was just a story…wasn’t it?

But what if this was a trap? These weren’t busy roads and it wouldn’t take much for the guy to get me to follow him down some track… At what point would I realise the trap? How could I escape or raise the alarm?

My over-active imagination was at least some entertainment on the long, dusty road. I tried to get the two-way radio to work just for something to listen to — or be able to use to call for help — but my attention was better focused on the road ahead.

Eventually my guide turned off to the town of Wickham, my destination of Point Samson was less than 10km further. He waved me on without ever trying to lure me to some remote killing field.

Arriving at my accommodation, I showered, changed, charged my phone and set out to find the beach where I would be tracking and monitoring the turtle nesting.