Last year, Club Marine began a partnership with Australia’s largest coastal community volunteer network, Coastcare. Across the country, there are 60,000 volunteers working in 2000 Coastcare groups.
They are, of course, not alone. There’s an army of volunteers across Australia. According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, volunteering is on the increase. More than 5.4 million Australians (that’s 34 per cent of the population) donate more than 700 million hours of volunteer time annually.
Club Marine is proud to publicise the stories of the Coastcare volunteers, because most of us have benefited from their work. Together, the volunteer groups that make up Coastcare protect and preserve some of this country’s most precious habitats and marine species.
The Ningaloo Turtle Program in North West Cape, Western Australia, is one project that Club Marine sponsors directly and, as the volunteers of Coastcare projects across Australia have shown, like the turtle, we can only move forward when we stick our neck out.
Visitors to Australia routinely use the word ‘alien’ to describe places and things that are actually ‘Australian’. But very few other words can adequately describe the other-worldly scenery of the North West Cape.
Located 1200km north of Perth, the North West Cape is a horn of land that stretches out from the mainland to the azure waters of the Indian Ocean. Running down the spine of the peninsula is the convoluted assemblage of rocky plateaus and cavernous gorges that defines the Cape Range Mountains.
Stretching the length of the western coast (and in many places just metres from the shore), is the 260km-long Ningaloo Reef, one of the largest and most pristine tropical reefs in the world. Nowhere else on earth can you encounter such dramatic contrast – an ancient arid landscape, surrounded on three sides by cobalt seas and flanked on its west by a vibrant living tropical reef.
The Ningaloo Reef is continuously bathed in the warm tropical waters of the Leeuwin current, which flows down from the northern Indian Ocean, bringing with it a variety of tropical marine species and making the reef an important habitat for whale sharks, dugongs, whales, dolphins and at least 500 species of fish. It is also, by virtue of its unique geological position, the preferred breeding and nesting ground of three of the world’s most vulnerable marine turtle species: the hawksbill, the loggerhead and the green turtle.
Roland Mau is District Manager of the Department of Environment Conservation, Exmouth Office, WA, and one of the founders of the Ningaloo Turtle Program. As he explains it, because this is one of the rare places on earth where a person (or turtle) can walk from a coral reef straight onto the beach, Ningaloo is the perfect habitat and foraging ground for marine turtles.
According to Mau, the Ningaloo Reef has been popular with marine turtles for over 5000 years. The turtles feast, frolic and mate in the lagoon along the Ningaloo coastline and nest on the mainland beaches each year from November to March. To put it another way, if the Ningaloo Reef is a nightclub and cafeteria for the marine turtles, the beach is the maternity ward.
Marine turtles are remarkably nomadic and wander thousands of kilometres throughout their lifetime. However, no matter how far they go, they are instinctively drawn back to their birthplace to reproduce.
“Most people don’t understand how important the beaches are for marine turtles,” Mau explains, “but turtles can’t just lay eggs on any beach.” It’s as if they are assigned a place to breed. Each turtle returns to its home beach because it has proven to have the conditions favourable to the survival of the turtles that hatch there.
To put it mildly, the reproductive process for the average turtle is an exercise in pathological optimism. Predators abound on land and sea. Constantly in a state of peril throughout most of their lives, few survive to adulthood to reproduce. The compulsion to return to their birthplace to breed is cold-blooded Darwinism at its best, ensuring that only the strongest of the species survives.
Complicating the process even further has been the rise of tourism in the Ningaloo area. “People were driving their four-wheel drives all over the beaches,” Mau says. “Basically, they were crushing turtle nests and causing disorientation of the hatchlings that got lost in their tyre tracks.”
Generalised Marine Turtle Lifecycle
Convinced that something needed to be done, the Ningaloo Turtle Program was formally established in 2002. The goal of the program was to share information about the nesting habits of the Ningaloo turtles with scientists and the public to ensure their protection.
But, as Roland Mau explains, the first issue the newly-formed NTP had to face was that they didn’t actually know much about the turtles they wanted to protect. “We knew where some of the key rookeries were (which is where the female turtles come up to the beach and nest), but we started to realise that there were a lot of other nesting areas along the 280km stretch of beach that we knew nothing about,” he says. “We wanted to know the extent of the rookeries. We wanted to know which species nested where. And we wanted to know what was going on in the population over time.”
A beach monitoring method was developed, drawing volunteers from the local community and around the world. And every year since the Ningaloo Turtle Program began, trained volunteer ‘turtle monitors’ can be seen walking the beaches along the Ningaloo Reef during the turtle nesting season, collecting evidence that helps marine biologists to understand the delicate processes involved in turtle reproduction.
Turtles face natural threats throughout their lives, but they are never as vulnerable as they are during their nesting period, which most marine biologists describe with three clinical phrases: ‘aggregation’, ‘nesting’ and ‘emergence’.
First, male and female turtles ‘aggregate’ in the shallow waters near the reef. Later, under the cover of night, the female turtles that have successfully ‘aggregated’ haul themselves ashore to make a nest in the sand above the high tide line.
“There is something very touching about seeing a female emerge from the ocean like that,” Mau explains, “entirely exposed, dragging this cumbersome weight up the beach she was born on 30 years ago.”
During the night, the female digs a hole about a half a metre deep and deposits around 120 eggs. She covers the eggs with sand and returns to the ocean, never to see her offspring.
After about 50 days, the turtles hatch. Instinctively, they emerge from their nest at night and head directly towards the water. In a life defined by danger, this is the most dangerous time in a young turtle’s life. As the hatchlings toddle en masse towards the ocean, like a slow-motion D-Day invasion in reverse, predators of all kinds – crabs, gulls and goannas – stroll amongst them like patrons at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Inevitably, a large percentage of hatchlings never make it.
The hatchlings have only one strategy to survive this gauntlet, and that is to simply get lost in the sea. As Mau explains it: “If they make it, if they clear the beach and clear the coast, they plunge themselves headlong into the sea and lose themselves in the open ocean.” After a life at sea, only one in every thousand turtles born on the Ningaloo beach will survive to adulthood and return to renew the cycle.
If the story of the Ningaloo turtles seems bleak, there are upsides. Although not much can be done to protect the turtles from their natural predators, steps are being taken to reduce human impact.
It’s been found, for example, that lighting from torches and cars disorient the nesting females and hatchlings. And, when people disturb the female turtles, they often abandon their nests and lay their eggs to die in the ocean. By sifting through all the data they have collected, the Ningaloo Turtle Program has created lists, maps, guidelines and a ‘Turtle Watchers Code of Conduct’ to teach beachgoers ways to limit the impact they can have on the delicate nesting process.
A small-scale interpretive facility, called the Jurabi Turtle Centre (left), was also built. Located near the town of Exmouth, the Centre offers visitors the chance to follow self-guided displays and information about the marine turtles in the area. ‘Turtle Tours’ and ‘Turtle Talks’ with experienced guides are also offered to help tourists and locals alike see the turtles in their natural environment without disturbing them.
All of the turtles that nest at Ningaloo Reef are threatened species and face a very real chance of extinction. Of course, dealing with threats just seems to be a part of being a turtle. But as the Ningaloo Turtle Program has shown, many of those threats can be eliminated simply through education.
“Teaching visitors to this area about the importance of the turtles means they will behave in an appropriate manner around them,” Mau says. “And when this happens, we will have taken a big step towards ensuring that turtles will be able to coexist with us long into the future.”
It’s 5:00am, and Suzie Lalor is standing in a darkened car park in Exmouth, WA, waiting for a bus. Before long, others arrive. Some are locals, but many are from all over the world. When the bus finally pulls in, the small crowd boards silently and embarks on a 40-minute trip across the North West Cape peninsula to the west coast.
Lalor and the others are ‘turtle monitors’ for the Ningaloo Community Turtle Monitoring Program. Throughout the summer, Lalor and her fellow volunteers will spend hours walking along the long stretches of beach that border the Ningaloo Reef, documenting evidence of turtle activity.
Sponsored by Club Marine, the Ningaloo Community Turtle Monitoring Program employs volunteer turtle monitors to find evidence of the endangered marine turtles that nest on the beaches of North West Cape. The information they gather allows the Ningaloo Turtle Program to identify rookeries and to limit inappropriate recreational and tourism activities in those areas during nesting times.
Lalor, who is Commodore of Exmouth Yacht Club during business hours, confesses she is not a morning person. Still, she has volunteered as a turtle monitor for the Ningaloo Community Turtle Monitoring Program every summer since 2005. “I hate getting up in the dark,” she says, “but I do it because this is such a good thing to do. The birdlife, the sunrise and the water here are absolutely beautiful in the morning. And, of course, there are the turtles.”
From December to February, from sunrise to around 10:00am, Lalor and the other turtle monitors will walk their designated stretch of beach, armed with a GPS, a digital camera, a tape measure and a turtle identification booklet.
Like most of the other volunteers, Lalor is not a turtle specialist, but she has completed a field assessment with the Ningaloo Community Turtle Monitoring Program, which has taught her to identify turtle species and their tracks.
When a turtle nest is found, Lalor uses her hand-held GPS to mark its location. By identifying and following the tracks of the turtles, the volunteers determine if something spooked the visiting turtle back into the ocean. “There’s something called a ‘false crawl’,” Lalor explains. “It’s a track that shows that the turtle came ashore, got scared and left without making a nest.” More than anything else, false crawls offer evidence that something is interfering with the nesting cycle.
Since the Community Turtle Monitoring Program was established in 2002, volunteers like Suzie Lalor have provided marine biologists the raw data they need to better understand the behaviour of the turtles that nest in the Ningaloo region, as well as the things that stand in their way.
For Lalor, the program has also provided one other, essential thing: the opportunity to get a swim in before work. “I always get a swim at the end of my morning monitoring session,” she says. “I can’t go down to the beach without getting into the water."