Exploring Ningaloo – week 1

As I drove alone along Yardie Creek Road I took in the landscape. There were no trees, just low scrub punctuated by taller, red termite mounds. Approaching the turnoff to Cape Range National Park I saw 13 very tall white poles, pinned to the ground by taut wire ropes. The largest of these was over 300 metres high. They are part of the naval communications station and produce very low frequency radio transmissions to ships and submarines. Rounding the corner of the cape I passed a lighthouse on my left opposite deep blue ocean on my right. I drove past numerous access roads with strange names like Mauritius, Hunters and Jacobsz. Some were barely more than sandy tracks. After forty minutes I saw the Turquoise Bay sign and slowed to turn off.

View of termite mounds and the landscape at sunrise (looking towards the sun). The mounds are orange while the rising sun is turning the cloud undersides gold

Walking down to the drift snorkel the white sand contrasted blindingly with the turquoise coloured water. Swimming out it was murkier than the day before. All the same fish were there, bright yellow bluespot butterflyfish hovered elegantly over coral heads. Picasso triggerfish looked up at me from small depressions in the sand. Swimming further out I floated over an area of branching coral. A black tip reef shark about a metre long emerged from the distance and lazily swam around me. I turned to keep watching it. It circled me once, then again and swam off back out to deeper water. I let the current take me away over the small coral patches, eventually leaving so I was on time to meet the Ningaloo Turtle Program (NTP) coordinator and other team leaders arriving today.

Overhead view of a green turtle on sand, flippers extended mid stroke. Sunlight is making wavy patterns on the ocean floor and part of the turtle's shell
Overhead view of a blue spotted lagoon ray swimming over lumps of brown coral

I moved into a two bedroom apartment at the Potshot Hotel with the other female team leader. We had our own washer, dryer, cooktop and were near the pool, what luxury! Walking to the shops I came across an emu standing on the nature strip in the middle of the road. It was like a giant scruffy feather duster with long legs and huge clawed feet that made me think of a dinosaur. It pecked at something in the rocks, beak open in the 40 degree heat. As darkness fell the world cooled slightly. Corellas flew overhead, calling loudly and slightly mournfully, my first day alone in Exmouth was coming to an end. Heading to bed the mozzies kept me up with their piercing whine in my ear. I turned the aircon back on, it roared directly over my head and gave off a funny yellow glow. I didn’t get much sleep on my first night.

A corella sits by the side of the road, all the grass in the image is golden because the sun was setting

Our first day at the Parks and Wildlife depot was filled with signing forms, being introduced to people, a PowerPoint presentation and GPS and tablet training. I liked learning about the different turtle tracks. In the photos and drawings they seemed easy enough to tell apart. The green turtles move their front flippers simultaneously as if doing butterfly up the beach. This creates a tractor tyre mark with a flattened centre made by the plastron (turtle tummy) dragging along the sand. Green turtles poke their tail into the sand as they move. If you point your finger into a tail hole you’d find the turtle is moving in the opposite direction. The loggerhead and hawksbill turtles drag themselves with alternating flippers in a very sandy version of freestyle. Their front flippers leave a curved impression, with the top part of the J pointing to their travel direction, this is much more pronounced on the hawksbill track which is also a lot narrower than the loggerhead. The other main way to tell these two apart is the loggerhead doesn’t leave a tail mark whereas the hawksbill tail leaves a squiggly line in the middle of its track. The flatback turtle rarely nests on the Ningaloo Coast but can move its front flippers either simultaneously or one at a time adding to the confusion of track identification.

Overhead view of two turtle tracks on the sand, green turtle tracks on the left and loggerhead on the right showing the differences described in the text. A few ghost crab holes are scattered in the frame too
Green track on the left and loggerhead on the right…racing up the beach maybe?

The next day we met at the depot at 5.30am. Backpacks of gear were passed out, we were given training notepads and assigned to cars. The sun came up fully as we took the long road out to the cape. Our trainer patiently led us along Five Mile Beach, stopping at every turtle track to quiz us on what species had made it, the direction it was travelling (emerge or return) and if a nest had been made. Following a discussion we all entered the data on our tablets then moved on down the beach, drawing a line across the track and between the nest and secondary body pit so the next day’s tracker would not double count. We only saw green turtle tracks that day. Our trainer also pointed out tracks of other species, the t-shaped rabbit patterns were everywhere, so were the dotted ghost grab marks. Bird tracks were not as common but some were quite large, making you look twice in case it was a fox. Pink sea urchin tests as large as my hand were scattered along the tideline, some crushed, others still in perfect condition. All too soon the track training was over and we headed back to the office.

A landscape view of the beach with two turtle tracks, one emerging and the other returning up the beach. The blue water is in the distance and a few clouds are scattered across the sky

That night we met at Hunters beach to watch the local vet release a turtle. The turtle was called Rosie, she’d come in with float syndrome. This is where bacteria or a viral infection develops in a turtle’s gut, releasing gases that stop the turtle from being able to control its buoyancy. The turtle floats at the surface and can’t feed, quickly losing condition and growing a covering of barnacles. The vet takes in turtles like this and with many helping hands attempts to return them to full health. Rosie was the ninth turtle released and seemed very happy to be heading back out to sea.

A turtle is about to enter the sea at sunset, she's right next to the white foamy wash
Rosie heading out

After another training session we went snorkeling at Lakeside. On arriving at the beach you walk half a kilometre until you come to two yellow poles sticking out of the dunes. These correspond to a buoy in the water. Further up the beach is another set of poles, the area enclosed by these markers is the sanctuary zone where the snorkel is. The current was ripping past so we walked past the first poles, complete with osprey perched on top. Jumping in there was a long swim out to the buoy. My heart sank along the way. In every direction as far as I could see the sand was covered in brown algae. Where was the reef? We fought the current, kicking furiously until we reached the buoy then drifted across the sanctuary zone. Nothing. Disappointed we started swimming back to shore and finally found the coral bommies. A green turtle had wedged itself between the coral and another rock to take a break from the rushing current. A white and mottled brown octopus clung to the coral. Kicking hard I could dive closer. It didn’t like that, instantly turning an angry shade of red. Groups of blue green chromis were scattered like confetti above the branching coral and a large, rainbow coloured parrotfish loudly chomped algae off coral as I swam past. This was an incredible diversion from our training.

three fish swim close to the camera with an aqua blue background
A whole reef of fish to my left…and I sit in the shallows with these silver guys instead

I decided to clean my office, there was a layer of red dust on everything. Two taxidermied turtles, a stuffed fox, seagull and numerous turtle skulls and bones are piled around the room. Tubs of old shirts take up space while the shelves are filled with folders of paper, records from monitoring since the program began in 2002. After wiping the dust off everything and rearranging all the critters and tubs the office seemed a lot larger. I even managed to tuck the blue, shell-shaped kiddies pool into a back corner. I line up the hatchlings preserved in jars on a shelf above my computer. Two are barely swimming in preserving liquid, one is completely high and dry. I think they’ll make nice office companions along with the adult taxidermied turtles sitting on the desk behind me, ready to greet people as soon as they walk through the door. I wonder if they’ll get names after two months alone in this room with me.

We were taken out to Bungelup to become familiar with the remote camp we would stay at during the program. The camp is very basic, an awning covers the dining table which sits outside two rooms, one for storage the other a washroom. This area is one of the most significant mainland loggerhead turtle rookeries in the Eastern Indian Ocean basin. Walking along the beach to hammer in the totem signs we saw at least 15 turtles close to shore. They were mostly greens, very skittish, roughly 20 years old based on their salad bowl size. When they took a breath and saw us on the beach they took off as fast as possible. We saw plenty of loggerhead tracks and nests. Walking back along the beach our trainer pointed out a shark in the shallows. “There’s no black tip on its fin, it might be a nervous shark” she stated. “A what?” I asked disbelieving. “It’s a type of shark we get here that likes to swim close to shore”. On the drive back to town I had to check if she was making it up, to go with the drop bears and hoop snakes but no, sure enough there is a nervous shark.

Another 5.30am start for our assessment day. The pattern was generally like our training where we walked along the high tide mark, following return tracks and trying to determine if a nest had been made. Along the way our assessor drew dingo tracks and a turtle in the sand to practice other scenarios then at the end had us describe the differences in tracks for each species. We all finished the morning as fully fledged turtle trackers!

a shark fin and tail poke above the water
Can anyone else hear the Jaws theme…?

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