The Turtle that Got Away

The first turtle that night was spotted on the farthest reaches of the beach.

With high tide leaving little more than a metre of the beach’s sand for the turtle, we camped out in the vegetation to observe and be ready to move on the turtle when it was ready to return to the ocean.

Except she was taking her time. The turtle would dig a pit, give up on it, move on, dig another pit, give up, you get the idea.

Then suddenly she decided she’d had enough of digging unsatisfactory pits, and was ready to go back to the water. So we moved into position, blocking her path and ready to restrain her.

The turtle takes one look at this, and decides maybe she will have another go at digging pits after all. Once again she begins digging, giving up, moving on, digging, before again abandoning the plan.

We scramble to get to the turtle and we are right on the very edge of the high tide line, trying to see if she is a microchipped “returning” turtle, and suddenly a big wave comes washing in and we all jump out of the way. Except for the turtle, since turtles are not known for their ability to jump and she was waiting for exactly this. She’s on her way.

The tide pulls back and I take the brief moment of respite to try again to get that reading — then the waves come crashing back, and the turtle lifts with the current and floats away with a gentle kick of her flippers.

Returning and New

Volunteer Rebecca Evans and Parks and Wildlife officer Hannah Hampson measuring a flatback turtle.
Volunteer Rebecca Evans and Parks and Wildlife officer Hannah Hampson measuring a flatback. Photo: Liz Grant. Source: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/news/item/2915-turtle-monitoring-taskforce-descends-on-pilbara-island

Let’s rewind this slightly, as some of you might be wondering what is a returning turtle? And why would they be microchipped?

Flatback turtles on the beaches of Thevenard Island fall into two categories: new turtles, and returning turtles.

Returning turtles are ones we have met before. They have been chipped, and they have been given identifying tags on their flippers. They are in the system.

New turtles haven’t been given any of these things, and so require the works: a chip in their shoulder, tags in their front flippers, a biopsy taken, and their measurements recorded.

These are the ones that get challenging.

Sandbank

Later that night, a turtle was spotted climbing up a steep sandbank. She gained many points for making it up the bank, but everyone knew that she was never going to nest up there — despite spending an hour or more, digging pits, rejecting them, and repeat.

Things got interesting when the turtle accidentally slid down the opposite side of the dune. Where there was no beach, only concrete. But, turtles being what they are, she continues wandering about, trying to dig pits in concrete, until one volunteer physically heaved her back onto the sand.

It was right around the time that she was coming down the slope towards us, and towards the issue, and we were preparing to scan and possibly tag her that another turtle emerged from the ocean.

And went straight up the exact same sandbank.

And did exactly the same thing, falling down the wrong side of the dune.

Past Midnight

Metal tag showing identification number. Photo: Stephen Connett.
Metal tag showing identification number. Photo: Stephen Connett.
Source: https://accstr.ufl.edu/resources/report-a-tag/

It was gone twelve and yet there were even more turtles (remember how the night before had no turtles at all?) emerging from the ocean, digging pits, laying eggs.

Our last turtle of the night had just one flipper tag. Where the other tag should have been there was a scar. She needed another, and it was my turn to do it.

Enough to say, it didn’t go as planned. The new tag instead had to be removed, while the turtle was less than impressed with proceedings. It didn’t end there, because she still needed that new tag. I did it again, and it was only slightly better.

Then the turtle needed a second tag to alongside the existing, original tag, and my skills at adding tags hadn’t much improved.

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