The Turtle that Got Away

A flatback turtle crawls back into the ocean after laying eggs and being tagged.

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.

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…

Save the Turtles, Save the World

Flatback turtle Photo © Doug Perrine nwf.org Save the turtles, save the world.

I’m going to save the turtles this November. It’s really happening.

The Adventure

Last year, I talked here about the WPTP, that monitors the numbers of nesting marine turtles, and judges the success of their nests.

I wanted to get involved with the program, but it was a long way from Perth. Over 1,600km from Perth: and to put that into perspective, it’s about 4,000km from Perth to Sydney.

With a trip back to England last December, and a shortage of both funds and annual leave, the adventure has had to wait.

This year, things are different. Flights are booked. Accommodation is booked. Even the hire car is reserved.

Driving to Karratha would add an extra two days to the journey in each direction, and so it isn’t practical to make part of the adventure getting to the West Pilbara. But the important part is my new motto for this adventure: save the turtles, save the world.

Threatened Flatback Turtles

The threatened flatback is native to Australia, and nest only in Australia.

With cultural, spiritual and economic importance to Indigenous Australians from coastal regions, these ancient mariners have existed for more than 100 million years. Modern humans are considered to have evolved around 200,000 years ago, and what we call civilisation has existed for about 6,000 years. We are new kids in the neighbourhood to the flatback turtle

But changes to air and sea temperatures, rising sea levels, and other aspects that may come with climate change all threaten their survival.

Turtles can take up to 50 years to become a breeding adult. Ongoing monitoring and tracking is important if the flatback turtle is going to survive.

This adventure is in the early stages right now: all I know is how I am getting there and where I am resting my weary head. Which is important. Training on how to monitor the turtle tracks will be provided, then I just need to get some good photographs.

The Adventure to Save the Turtle

Australia's threatened flatback marine turtle
Nullabor plain
source: http://motherlode.com.au

I got to thinking, after my last post. With the up-front cost of Costa Rica so insurmountable, it struck me that I needn’t travel so far for adventure.

Australia is this incredible, vast and diverse country. I have barely even touched it, let alone scratched the surface of this great southern land.

I am already thousands of miles from where I grew up. Why can’t I find an adventure here?

A while ago I tried pitching the Flat Footed Adventurer as a concept to places like Lonely Planet and in-flight magazines. I would have adventures and I would write about them. It’s a pretty straight-forward concept, and the driving idea behind this blog. To inspire some people towards adventures, and provide entertainment and escapism to those who prefer to just read about it.

Some adventures would be big. Some adventures smaller. There would be spear fishing expeditions, but also adventures of quiet introspection and self discovery in Buddhist monasteries. Adventures to find the coolest small towns, and adventures in the jungles of South America.

For in-flight magazines I was even willing to find adventures in locations they wanted to promote. All I wanted was the adventures, and the opportunity to write about them all.

The fact that I’m writing about it here, and not directing you to websites, books and magazines where I am published, tells you that they didn’t go for it.

But the point is adventures don’t always have to be pushing yourself to the limit of your ability, multi-activity, many thousands of dollars worth of expenses. Some adventures can just be about going somewhere new and doing something out of your comfort zone.

Australia's threatened flatback marine turtle
source: http://scienceillustrated.com.au/

With this in mind, I am focusing my current adventure dream on volunteering with the West Pilbara Turtle Program. The program aims to monitor and track the threatened Flatback marine turtles that are native only to Australia.

This might seem like an abrupt change of direction: where’s the hiking, rafting, cycling, kayaking? And what about South America? It is a change of direction, but I feel that it is doing important work, for something I care about, and it fulfills the wanderlust inside of me.

To get to the beach where the monitoring takes place is something approaching a 16-hour drive from Perth, although the closest airport is only a 2-hour flight. I would first have to attend a training day this year before being able to be a volunteer — so that means there might be two trips. Just getting there would be an adventure in itself.

This is still in the earliest stages of a plan, but even flying there would have costs  dramatically lower than Costa Rica and it would be doing good in the world, something that is important to me: leaving things slightly better than I found them.