Turtles on the Beach

Australian beach with marine turtles

Sunrise on the beachMy first real day of turtles conservation started at 4.30am, having got to bed at midnight. We had to be looking for turtle tracks on the beach for 5am as the sun came up. “We” was me, and my roommate George.

One of us would take the car and drive to the opposite side of the island, and walk from there until they ended up back at base. The other would just start walking from the beach in front of our cabins and go until they reached the car.

I chose the second option. Before we leave camp we grab a backpack each, it has a tablet for recording the tracks of turtles we might see, and for me a bottle of water, a can of Solo, and a cereal bar. The cereal bar is for breakfast and my promise to myself that I’ll take a short break.

I marked my starting position and time on the tablet, made a brief note about the weather conditions, and started walking.

Seeing Turtles

Green marine turtle tracks in wet sand on the beach

Having seen no turtles the night before — not to mention none last year — I was excited to see a pair of turtles on my walk. They were easily identified, even at a distance, as green turtles from their domed shell. The fact that there were two of them, close together, was a good indication what they were doing.

I crouched quietly, watching them, for some time, gradually edging closer when they were looking the other way or when they were under the water, until they just gracefully swam away — either for more privacy or to continue their discussion somewhere else.

There were plenty of tracks to see, including green turtle tracks — distinguishable from flatback turtles in part because of the small holes in the sand their tails make as they make their way up the beach, but also flatback turtle tracks, too. There were tiny tracks, spreading out from holes in the sand, that I thought at first were hatchling tracks. On reflection and discussion with a supervisor it turned out they were probably crabs, instead.

As the day wore on it got less sunny and more windy. Windy nights meant there could be lots of turtles nesting. Or there could be a storm coming, after all there was a tropical cyclone off the coast of Indonesia…

Onslow and Onwards

Thevenard island

Onslow Stepping off the plane in Onslow, the first thing that struck me was that while it was warm it wasn’t hot. It’s strange the things you notice in a new place.

I thought to myself “This isn’t too bad. This is doable.”

Then I realised: it was only 8am. I’d forgotten what it was like in the Pilbara.

I spent a few hours hanging around in Onslow with the other volunteers where we picked up a few things from the local supermarket, and killed time in a hotel while waiting for our boat to Thevenard island .

The town boasts such attractions as the Onslow Goods Shed Museum. It may not seem like much, but in a part of the country that is alternately baked in the sun, thrashed with cyclones, and drowned in floods, it’s good going.

The jet boat trip from the mainland out to Thevenard takes about 45 minutes. Luckily for us, the crossing was smooth and the water beautiful blues and greens.

sky and sea

As we powered along, we saw something in the water up ahead. Was it something floating? Some discarded rubbish? Then it became clear: it was a turtle, just merrily swimming along.

One of the first things you see on Thevenard Island are Chevron’s decommissioned storage tanks.

Several huge, grey concrete structures dominate the island, and if they survive for centuries to come may one day be regarded like the statues on Easter Island.

That this conservation work exists alongside mining, oil and gas giants like Chevron or Rio Tinto is no surprise, since they help fund the programs, but it’s an uneasy partnership.

At night

At night, when you sit on the beach on Thevenard island it’s almost completely dark. Out in the ocean blinks the lights of offshore oil and gas facilities, and in the distant is the constantly-burning gas flame from Wheatstone Project.

The moon rises around 11pm, and the sky is blanketed with countless stars, with the occasional streak of a meteor.

about last nightThat first night was warm, humid, perfectly still and calm. And there was not a single turtle to see.

Apparently, they prefer windy nights.

It was just as well, since I had to be awake and on the beach at 5am the next morning.

The Amazing Aussie Adventure: One year on in Perth

Aussie Adventure, 1 year on

I’ve been living in this great Southern land for more than a year now, and the tipping point for what feels like a dream has been reached.

With any big change the new ‘reality’ feels completely unreal — this is particularly true if you leave a dark, cold and rainy London and find yourself in sunny Perth.

However, there comes a point where the balance shifts and it’s now what was there before that doesn’t seem quite real any more.

This Aussie adventure of mine is about the lifestyle more than anything. Sure, living in a city in Australia isn’t so very different to living in a city in England — but then it’s the small things that make the difference.

Fish & chips and the sunset

Small things like eating fish and chips at Scarborough beach and watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean — or just getting out of work promptly on a scorching hot day to join the rest of the population swimming in the ocean to cool off.

My Home is Your Home by Ken UnsworthOn any particular day, you will find people swimming in the ocean and playing games on the beach until it gets dark.

Or the lifestyle is things like the annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition started at Cottesloe beach, and though it’s spread east to Bondi beach and internationally to Denmark, it feels very WA — the setting sun adding an extra element to the art works.

Not just beach…

The lifestyle is not all about the beach life, either.

With friends, we meet up each month for a BBQ in a different spot in Perth — from Leighton beach, to the river foreshore, to Banks Reserve, and Kings Park: going for a picnic every month is something I couldn’t dream of doing in the UK. Unless you didn’t mind having your picnic inside the car or in the rain. And most people in the UK have done both of those things on more than one occasion.

the PinnaclesA short drive out of the city takes you to national parks where you can see koalas (they’re not native to WA, it should be noted, so don’t expect to just see them in all parks) and kangaroos.

You don’t even have to travel to see kangaroos — at dusk they will be hopping all over your nearest oval. I hope that the small thrill of seeing koalas and kangaroos doesn’t get ever old — except for the kangaroos that jump into the road when you’re driving.

Busselton Jetty, WAA longer drive north of Perth will take you to the Pinnacles, but even when you’re standing on a hill in the desert and admiring the rock formations, you can still see the sun glinting off waves not far away.

Driving south from Perth takes you through forest and down to Busselton and its famous jetty, and on to the vineyards of Margaret River — where people will go for a week or a weekend and decide to never leave.

Shorts and thongs

I still stand out as a stranger, here. Although I find myself unintentionally saying words like “thongs” when I mean “flip flops”, and greeting friends with “Hazzitgawn?”, other times I am very conscious of how posh and English I sound when I ask “Please may I have…” instead of the more Aussie “Can I grab…” and being caught off guard when someone asks me “How are you travelling?” when they mean “How are you?”scarborough beach sunset

Summer is waning in Perth and it reminds me of the best times of year in England, when it’s warm and fine. Although I know that winter is on its way and our house has no heating and very little insulation, it isn’t like there will be wintry things like ice, frost or snow in Perth.

Life here has tipped over so that now 30-something years in England now seem like the part that’s unreal.

It’s raining in Esperance

Esperance WA: famous for its beach

Esperance, Western Australia

Esperance is an odd kind of city, on the south-west coast of Western Australia. It has a modest population of about 15,000 people, but with a reputation for the best beaches in the world Esperance is a draw for cruise ships and tour groups from around the world.

I arrived in Esperance at the start of Autumn, 10 days into March, with the heat mostly gone out of the summer and the tourists largely moved on. Though already Autumn, it would be mistaken for a good summer’s day back home: deep blue skies and sun sparkling on the southern ocean like thousands of fireflies.

Esperance — so I am told, and I am little sceptical — officially boasts the best beaches in the world. Apparently this is based on something like the lightness of the sand, or perhaps length of beaches. The city is a 6-hour drive from the city of Albany, hardly a bustling metropolis in its own right but many times the size of this city 500 km further along the cost.

That’s not to say Eleven Mile beach is unremarkable. With the sky a deep blue and the sun shining on the ocean, it was sparkling like thousands of fireflies on the surface of the water. The beach’s soft sands weren’t so “white”, though — and it’s not a criticism, merely an observation that it would be lazy to describe them so simply. They are an incredibly pale yellow, a soft cream, perhaps.

This morning, on my second day in town, I woke up to rain. After a month in Australia not seeing rain, and apparently no significant rain in this region since the year began, it was welcomed. Although I had been looking forward to visiting a beach properly, and experiencing its famous icy waters, I was content to listen to the sound of heavy rain on a tin roof — and when the rain eased, listening to the streams of water as it ran down to the parched garden.

In the afternoon, with the rain and thunder behind us, our host took us out in his four-wheel drive vehicle to experience up close many of the city’s bays and beaches. Even if the rain had stopped, it still wasn’t a day for swimming, but that was OK too — because there’s plenty to see on the beaches and the surrounding areas without having to get your feet wet. Intentionally.

I don’t remember the names of all the bays and harbours we visited, driving down on to the wet sand and following the tracks of vehicles that had gone before us earlier in the day. The names don’t matter, I’m not a tour guide.

On one beach a group of vehicles stood, seemingly abandoned, with doors hanging open and belongings on the sand around them, until we noticed half a dozen surfers out in the water. The swell wasn’t large, but what I enjoy about surfing is sometimes as much about the zen of it: sitting on a board in the water, just quietly and peacefully waiting for the next wave. They weren’t chasing adrenaline today, they were just enjoying being out surfing at all.

On one beach I stopped to look at the line in the sand where the tide reached. Whether the tide was coming in or going out I didn’t stay long enough to make out, but at a certain point the sand was darker and uniformly speckled, while past that point it was glassy and smooth. Perhaps the mottled side of the sand was marked by the morning’s heavy rain, and the great southern ocean was edging its way up the shore to wipe the slate clean.

rock pools, EsperanceI could have stood for hours by one collection of rocks. The rocks were mixtures of dark greys and browns, with white sand dusting their crevices like snow. Every now and then a larger wave would come along and wash all around them, and I’d watch as the water drained back through all the small gaps between them. The ocean was a light aquamarine, but in the small rockpools that briefly formed it barely reflected the cloudy sky — in my pictures the water is all but invisible apart from where it catches the light.

On the beach, the pale glassy sand met a white-fringed ocean that went from the slightest hint of blue to aquamarine and out to a deeper blue as it swept out to more distant islands.

The islands themselves seemed to be fighting a war between rock and vegetation, overseen by the patient ocean. Out of the ocean rose smooth reddish brown rock, streaked grey and black in places, and it was impossible to tell if the greenish black vegetation that covered the rock so completely on top was spreading downwards to the sea to cover every last remaining stone, or if the island was balding, with the vegetation receding up the front and sides.

Above the beaches, the same greenish black vegetation was cut through with the dusty red tracks of roads, and up out of the foliage rose monoliths of that reddish brown rock, crusted with yellow moss in its cracks, and worn into the familiar shapes of people and animals by countless seasons of wind, rain and sun.

From high vantage points you could look across the harbours as the sun briefly came out and bleached the sandy shores of colour so that the almost resembled Dover’s chalk cliffs and made that same ocean — still aquamarine darkening almost in a line to a slate or cobalt blue — shine against it where it swept up and retreated. In the sun my attention was directed back towards the houses of Esperance, where a dark curtain of rain was again falling on the city.

rock formations, EsperanceAround the beaches, up the paths in the vegetation and rock, were areas for campsites — no doubt filled to capacity in the high season, and a ranger’s house a short distance away. I was reminded of Edward Abbey’s season in the wilderness of Arches National Park in the USA, and wondered what a life would be like as a ranger: wanting to live among the nature of national parks, and recognising that the roads and campgrounds and tourists are in part necessary encroachments for civilisations that must see value from these places: a value that comes from making them easily accessible and habitable.

 

Sculpture by the Sea: Cottesloe beach

Red Centre, by Carl Billingsley

Red Centre, by Carl Billingsley: Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe beachThis weekend the Amazing Aussie Adventure continued as I got the opportunity to check out the opening of Sculpture by the Sea on Cottesloe beach.

Cottesloe is a tremendously popular beach in Perth, but I’d never visited it properly before — then again, I’d never been to Perth at this time of year before, either, and visiting at the end of summer makes a big difference.

Making the beach even more attractive was a range of sculptures by more than 70 artists — local artists and artists from WA were exhibited alongside international artists, making the beach and surrounds into one big modern art gallery.

“Ocean Cathedral” by Debbie Harding

Ocean Cathedral

Among the sculptures were “Ocean Cathedral” by Debbie Harding, a cathedral window made out of bamboo with a view of the ocean, “Wave 1” by Annette Thas a wave made out of plastic Barbie dolls, and “Red Center” by Carl Billingsley, a veritable sea of red and yellow survey flags, that reminded me, in my exceedingly amateur opinion, of some of Van Gogh’s paintings.

“150 Surfboard Graveyard” by Chris Anderson: Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe beach

150 Surfboard Graveyard

Other sculptures had an ecological message: including “150 Surfboard Graveyard” by Chris Anderson, a “graveyard” of broken parts of surfboard, all sticking out of the sand, a life size rhinoceros knitted entirely out of black plastic bags by Mikaela Castledine, and a fish tank of “Things You Might Find On Your Trip to the Beach” (by Marina DeBris) — entirely consisting of rubbish the artist finds washed up on the beach.

There are too many sculptures and installations to list here — but if you like art, want something to talk about and think about, the exhibition is running until the end of March. I can highly recommend it.

For more photos of Sculpture by the Sea, check out my Tumblr here and check out the Sculpture by the Sea official Twitter account