It’s 3am on a remote Island off the Queensland coast, but instead of sleeping we’re crouched at the end of a deserted beach, squinting to catch a glimpse of the dark trail in the sand that indicates a flatback turtle. We‘ve been waiting for hours and the tide is finally high enough for the turtles to come ashore, so we’re ready for action despite the early hour.
Unfortunately, flatbacks are vulnerable (data deficient) in Australia due to coastal habitat loss, urban development and mainland predators, and islands like Avoid could be their last refuge. We’re only a small group, consisting of UNSW students, volunteers and Wild Mob ecologists, but our work is providing critical information for conservation efforts. We’re on the remote Avoid Island, owned by the Queensland Trust for Nature in the beautiful Great Barrier Reef and although the work is tough, we get to wake up every day surrounded by the natural beauty of Australia in a place only a handful of people have ever seen. Surrounded by clear blue water and alive with birdsong, it’s sometimes hard to believe we’re here for important research, not a tropical holiday.
At night, turtle tracks appear dark on the beaches of Avoid Island – the wet sand indicating the path taken by these enormous creatures on their way up the shore. Tonight, we’ve spotted a trail halfway up the beach, so we immediately drop to the ground and remain still, looking for any sign of the turtle. It’s important to remain out of sight or our movement might scare the turtle back to sea. Slowly, slowly, we crawl up the beach, following the dark track until we spot the first sign of a turtle preparing to nest. We can see piles of sand getting thrown into the air as the flatback digs her way into the moist soil where she will lay her eggs. Sometimes, flatbacks will begin to dig multiple nests before they find the right place to lay, but tonight we’re lucky; she’s happy with her first nest and begins digging an egg chamber. We can see her distinctive digging technique from where we are hidden, as she scoops out piles of wet sand and throws them away. When she finally begins to lay it’s been almost 25 minutes since she first emerged from the water.
By profiling these adult turtles and their nests, we can figure out the number of young that are surviving, and also the number of females who are returning to nest. This data is highly important for conservation, especially for the data-deficient flatback turtle.
We can now approach her and carefully begin taking the measurements we need. We check her shell for any damage and look at her flippers to see if she’s been tagged before. We have maybe a five minute gap to get all the information we need before she finishes laying and starts flicking sand in our faces as she fills in her nest. By the end of the week we will have sand embedded in our skin, our hair and in all our luggage. However, this sand-flicking behaviour makes it even harder for egg-eating predators to find the nest. If we miss the turtle laying, it’s almost impossible for us to figure out where her nest is. This excellent nest-hiding technique means the flatback eggs have a greater chance of surviving til they hatch in a few months. However, they will also be threatened by temperature changes that heat up the sand, and a violent storm can even sweep the nest into the sea.
Flatbacks are not the easiest turtles to work with, but the time and effort spent on them is well worth it when you get the chance to be up close to these amazing creatures. We’ve taken three separate flights to reach one of their remote nesting locations on Avoid Island, and during the day we fight against intense heat and sun exposure as we try to catch a few hours sleep. When we’re not quietly roasting in the oven of our tents, we’re out on the beaches again, making sure we haven’t missed any turtle nests and profiling the beach morphology. Avoid Island is beautiful – jewel coloured rainbow bee-eaters, green turtles playing in the water, and picturesque ocean views in every direction. When it’s time to go home we’re tired, sunburnt, and covered in sand, but we consider ourselves lucky: not everyone gets the chance to be up close to these vulnerable creatures in such an amazing location. We’ve profiled nearly 80 turtles and I know we’d do it all again to relive this unforgettable experience.