At Port Hedland’s Cemetery Beach we meet Kelly Howlett, chairperson of Care for Hedland Environmental Association.
She’s a highly involved lady in the local community, a council representative and full-time employee at the town’s information centre.
But, today, it’s all about the flatback turtles.
Care for Hedland is a local non-profit organization, and the only organization of its kind in the Pilbarra region in North-western Australia.
For the sixth year running, the volunteers are monitoring the turtles’ nesting season from October to March, cataloguing all the activity.
One beach, 700 nests
Cemetery Beach is the main nesting rookery area, Ms. Howlett tells us.
There are 700 nests on Cemetery Beach at the moment. Every year 2-300 turtles take part in these activities. Flatback turtles only nest every 2-4 year, but when they do nest, they lay eggs 2-3 times.
“They’ll come back in a fortnight’s time and repeat the process all over again,” says Ms Howlett.
“Each time, the turtles deposit approximately 50, billiard ball-sized eggs. The eggs are dropped into the egg-chamber, about knee-depth. It takes 50-60 days of incubation and then the hatchlings will emerge and make their dash down to the ocean.”
Against all odds
It is estimated only one in 1000 flatback turtle hatchlings reach mature age. Both land and sea is full of predators for these slow-moving and somewhat defenceless creatures. Indifferent humans leaving rubbish scattered on the beaches are also adding to the deadly challenges for this close relative of Charles Darwin’s favourite pet.
We later get to experience the unfolding of the natural drama first hand. As we are following one little trooper down to the water, the little creature is looking healthy. But, as soon as the turtle takes its first breaststrokes out to sea, an octopus emerges from under a rock, and the turtle’s short life comes abruptly to an end.
So what can people do to help these little creatures make it out to sea? Apparently, there’s nothing much that can be done, except for understanding and obeying the watcher’s code of conduct, and perhaps shushing off a few drooling seagulls.
“It’s very important that the turtles continue on and make their own way into the water,” Ms. Howlett says.
“It’s important for their imprinting, so that they know where to come back to. All we do is make the environment nice and safe, and guiding people. That’s the important part, making sure people don’t have torches or camera flashes, or are leaving beach furniture or sandcastle building gear on the beaches. And, making sure there’s no impediment, so that they can make it down to the water.”
Environmentalists vs. car enthusiats
The flatback turtles, like all of Australia’s 23 different types of sea turtles, are a protected species. The environmentalists in Port Hedland have triumphed a battle that is now raging a bit further east on the WA coastline – getting cars off the beachfronts. In Broome, the Broome Advertiser recently announced another year of tug-o-war between car enthusiasts wanting to drive their cars on the local beaches and the people who worry and care for the future of the shelled creatures. But as of yet, the cars are holding their ground on the beachfront, and the turtles have to do their best to swivel in between the four-wheel-drives and their tracks.
But, despite the ban of cars on the local foreshore, Kelly Howlett admits that cars are still also a real issue on Hedland’s Pretty Pool beach.
“We need to step up the signage and make it easier for people in the community to report vehicles when they are on the beach. It all comes down to awareness-raising. People don’t really realise the turtle nests are there and also [they don’t realise] the damage their vehicle is doing driving there.”
She explains that when a vehicle drives right on top of the egg-chamber, it tombs the hatchlings. The sand becomes compressed and almost like concrete, and hatchlings are unable to surface.
“Or,” she adds, “if they are able to come out, they potentially get trapped in the wheel ruts and can’t make it down to the ocean. That leaves them open to predators, the goannas and seagulls.
And finally, of course, there is the issue of lazy beachgoers and their rubbish. In the morning hours on Cemetery beach one other member of Care for Hedland, Kara, found a dead green turtle washed ashore. She moved over it swiftly with a measure tape and a catalogue form, and conceded this one swallowed a plastic bag and drowned.
For more information on flatback turtles, visit www.seaturtle.org.