Down in the Sand

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…

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