At 5pm on any given October day, the traffic at Flinders Beach on the western shores of Cape York is chaos. A stampede of individuals is underway, all scurrying in the same direction, stepping on each other, pushing to get the right of way, scrambling over obstacles and knocking each other out in a race to the sunset. Then, at last, the water’s edge. Space. Home.
So begins the life of a baby sea turtle.
A couple of months earlier, in a 100-million-year-old reproduction ritual, their mothers had made their laborious journey from the ocean to the dunes to lay their eggs. After selecting a suitable location, they would have carefully used all four flippers to craft an egg chamber before gently replacing the sand.
Watching an 80kg flatback turtle coming ashore on a spectacular Gulf of Carpentaria sunset, I suddenly forgot about the raucous sounds of the city I had left behind in Sydney. I was now surrounded by the sound of gentle waves lapping the shore and the laboured sighs of a flatback making her way to the dunes, as the wind whispered quietly through the trees beyond.
Cape York Turtle Rescue, based at Janie Creek on the northern end of Flinders, isn’t your average beach resort-style holiday. Its remote and secluded location between Mapoon and the tip of Cape York has neither phone nor television reception.
From Weipa, we were driven 90km to the aboriginal community of Mapoon, where we were greeted by four-wheel drives that took us on the next leg of our journey; a 45-minute drive on sandy tracks leading to the banks of Janie Creek where, nestled in a grove of she oaks, Camp Chivaree lay before us.
Named after a local aboriginal warrior, Chivaree is the base camp for a unique project designed to rescue and research sea turtles that nest on Flinders Beach, a short boat ride across the creek. Boasting hard-bottomed tents with stretcher beds, comfy mattresses, bush showers, crisp linen, solar power and superb food, Chivaree was thoughtfully crafted to keep luxuries in and the resident saltwater crocodiles of Janie Creek out.
In a rare collaboration between indigenous culture and science, the locals from Mapoon have joined prominent turtle researcher, Ian Bell, to help rescue the sea turtles on Flinders and also contribute to their research. “It’s time we gave something back to Mother Nature,” declared Aidi Mamus, an elder from the Mapoon community, on the project’s inception.
Traditionally, the sea turtle is the totem of the Yupungathi locals from Mapoon, a status that allows traditional hunting rites over these gentle giants of the ocean. However, the Mapoon locals are leading the charge in reducing the numbers of turtles taken through indigenous hunting. They are learning that, in the face of other dangers, it is the watery home of the turtles that is sadly under threat.
The result of a hydrographical freak of nature, the sheltered waters in the Gulf of Carpentaria house a clockwise ocean current that acts as a huge rubbish vortex, spraying debris on to beaches lining both sides of the Gulf. Amidst the flotsam of light bulbs, plastic bottles and one too many left-footed thongs, deadly ghost nets – the remains of trawl nets cut free from entanglement – drift aimlessly around with the rubbish.
“It’s like they get killed out of their own curiosity,” explained Bell. “Turtles are naturally curious of ghost nets, which create a flotsam shelter for tiny fish. Flatback turtles, which are a fish-eating species, are especially curious. They look at a ghost net like an open ocean buffet, and will often check a net for food. This is when they get tangled and drown.”
The amount of ghost nets in the Gulf of Carpentaria can be measured in tonnage and after an extreme meteorological event, like a cyclone or a tsunami, this may increase by up to 40 per cent. Logistically, it is extremely difficult to mount a sustained removal effort to rid the Gulf of ghost nets – its shores are simply too difficult to access. However, along Flinders, volunteers working on the turtle project assist in the removal of nets as well as trying to ascertain their origin.
Beaches would normally provide a safe haven from oceanic perils such as ghost nets, but not even Flinders can offer a harm-free refuge for sea turtles. Marauding groups of feral pigs have learned that turtle nests contain veritable feasts of freshly laid eggs. Pig deterrent devices have been installed over many of the known turtle nests on Flinders, but groups of feral dogs have learned that where pig devices are, turtle eggs lay beneath, and they can successfully dig their way around the pig exclusion devices to devour the eggs. A successful combination of pig shooting and canine-specific ‘1080’ baiting is currently underway on Flinders to combat these threats.
There are seven species of sea turtle in the world and four of these use Flinders to nest: olive ridley, green, hawksbill and flatback turtle all regularly come ashore during the peak breeding season of July through to November. Separated into 24 1km transects, workers on the turtle rescue project travel along the beach in custom-built, open-topped Landrovers to monitor turtle nests and predation and conduct rubbish removal.
Early one morning, I was woken by the haunting calls of brolgas engaged in a ritualistic mating display just over the other side of Janie. I scrambled out of bed, threw on my sandals and joined the group for hatchling patrol. We jumped in our trusty tinnie and ventured over to the Landrovers parked on the other side of the creek for the drive to the Pennefather River at the southern end of Flinders.
Patrolling the beach on a sultry, warm morning, we came across the miniature tracks of hundreds of sea turtle hatchlings. Seeking their origin, we carefully dug up a hawksbill turtle nest from where they had hatched and counted the empty eggshells.
Closer to the bottom of the nest, we found a couple of stragglers, who hadn’t quite made it with the rest, so we nurtured these tiny babies in a box of sand with the aim of releasing them later in the day as the sun set.
Further down the beach, we encountered another nest. This time, baby flatback turtles were just on their way out. Larger than other species, flatback hatchlings share their nest with fewer siblings, around 50, in comparison with green sea turtles, that may have up to 100.
Sitting at the side of the nest, we were amazed at the determination these tiny, perfect turtle hatchlings displayed in making it to the sandy surface. In contrast to the adults, which have dull green eyes, the flatback hatchlings have mesmerising blue eyes. I held one of these tiny babies between my thumb and forefinger and it was so keen to get to the ocean it looked like it was going to fly. I gently released it on the sand, where it took off in the direction of the water. “I think I’ll have to check your pockets before you leave,” mentioned indigenous guide, Laurie Booth, adding: “Just in case you’ve decided they’ll have a better survival rate in your house!” He had a point – it was tempting.
As the sun sank towards the horizon, Ian took us over to the sandbox where we had captured the straggler turtle hatchlings earlier in the day. We were given the task of transporting these by hand back to Flinders in order to release them. I was the recipient of both hawksbill and olive ridley hatchlings, which wriggled around in my hands as I sat in the tinnie.
Upon landing, I placed a hatchling in each hand and was almost moved to tears when I held a tiny hawksbill with my fingers. It wrapped its tiny flippers around my thumb and hugged it tightly, while it craned its tiny head to look at me.
Reluctantly, I released both of my hatchlings on the sand and watched as they ventured towards the ocean. Frantically, they started to swim as soon as they got there and, silhouetted by the sunset, raised their tiny heads on the surface to breathe.
Further down the beach, we encountered an entirely different scenario. On one of the kilometre transects we found eight nests where turtles had hatched, but sadly not one of the hatchlings had made it to the water. Each one had been eaten by dogs. It was disheartening to see after the efforts we had put into releasing our hatchlings earlier in the evening.
“Human intervention is vital for the survival of these turtles,” explained Laurie. “If we don’t assist their passage to the ocean, they have too many predators here. Even native animals find turtle hatchlings tasty. I’ve seen ghost crabs, sand goannas and night birds all attacking hatchlings,” he added.
On our return journey along the beach, we encountered more adult turtles making nests and laying eggs. To minimise our disturbance, we dimmed our torches and watched in silence. At one nest we were briefly allowed to hold a freshly laid turtle egg in our hands, which, for a very short period of time, is possible to do without excessively disturbing the egg. As I held a rubbery, mucous-laden egg about the size of a billiard ball, I tried to imagine the hatchling developing inside. A miracle of nature was taking place in the palm of my hand.
Part of the monitoring effort is to place non-corrosive flipper tags on adult turtles returning to sea. This is done when the turtles are ashore on Flinders. While a less intrusive method is being sought, tag data has so far shown that the turtles from Flinders can often travel great distances between seasons. During the non-breeding season, some adults may travel thousands of kilometres on feeding migrations. In fact, a green sea turtle tagged at Raine Island on the Great Barrier Reef turned up at Flinders this year.
The next day we ventured off in the Landrovers to monitor the remaining night time activity of the turtles. Laurie and Ian took us to see a ghost net with two green sea turtle skeletons tangled up in it. “What we think has happened here is that a green sea turtle has drowned in this ghost net, disintegrated down to its skeleton and another has fallen victim to the same net without knowing of the other’s fate,” explained Laurie. Close by, another couple of dead turtles lay in the sand. While the cause of death for one was unknown, the other was an adult that had been killed by dogs while laying her eggs.
That afternoon, we asked permission to leave the gated, crocodile-proof confines of Chivaree to explore. As a couple of the guys went further up Janie to go fishing for barra, I decided to go for a walk towards the mouth of the creek.
Staying well away from the water, I came across a couple of local kids from Mapoon spear fishing in Janie. “Aren’t you afraid of crocodiles ” I yelled out. “Nah, it’s cool, we can see them coming here. If you want to check out our crabs, they’re over near the drum,” they called back. They ran over to show me, carefully explaining the difference between male and female mudcrabs.
I was also shown some of the poddy mullet they had speared, although it was perhaps a futile method of catching these tiny mullet that they planned to use as bait. A handful of mullet with bits missing was proudly displayed to me. Later I noticed the boys, Peter and Timmy, had decided a cast net was a better way of catching mullet. It was refreshing to watch aboriginal kids, happy and healthy in their home country, engaged in the handed-down tradition of fishing using hand spears.
On our last day of turtle monitoring, we watched a sand goanna run across the beach and dive into the hollow of a driftwood log to escape the heat. Relentless, the noon heat on Flinders can force even the hardiest of animals to find shelter. Set against a backdrop of army fatigue green coastal shrubs, Flinders beach is strewn with litter, both natural and man-made.
Baler shells made brittle by extreme sunlight dot the beach. Driftwood, nautilus shells, kelp and white-washed coral adorn the high tide mark like a jewelled necklace. Standing behind the rubble and looking towards the ocean, a yacht drifted silently in the distant, tepid waters of the Gulf. The beach ended in an ocean of aquamarine blue beneath an azure sky.
With the assistance of Cape York Turtle Rescue, hopefully the Flinders of the future will only be disturbed by the waves, turtle tracks and the footprints of this important project’s volunteers…