Celebrating the New Year with turtles
SPP has now been working with the Ningaloo Turtle Programme (NTP), on the North West Cape of Western Australia, for over six weeks. The dedicated local community volunteers and the twelve external volunteers (one of whom has travelled here from Hong Kong) have been getting up at 05.00 to monitor the nesting success of the marine turtles that come up to lay their eggs each evening. The recently declared Ningaloo World Heritage Site easily earns its status, the almost pristine terrestrial and marine ecosystems here are home to an incredible wealth of biodiversity. As well as two species of the ubiquitous Kangaroo, there are endangered Black-Footed Rock Wallabies, Wedgetail Eagles, and several hundred species of reptile, including enormous Goanna’s that patrol the beaches. Ningaloo Reef is also one of the only places in the world that I am aware of that has a calendar for the different charismatic megafauna that visit the area. These include; three species of marine turtle (Loggerhead, Green and Hawksbill) that come to nest between October and April, then the Whale Sharks arrive, along with Humpback Whales that calve in the nearby Exmouth Gulf, as well as enormous Manta Rays and a lot of rather large sharks. It’s great to see so many sharks here as their populations in Fiji are have been decimated by shark-finning in the last couple of years.
Australian volunteer Lauren Green was lucky enough to spot this little fella/lady going hell for leather down the beach on New Year’s Eve to the (relative) safety of the ocean. It was running down the water’s edge with its siblings, in the state known as its ‘frenzy’. This is a super-energetic phase when the hatchling first emerges from the nest and has to dodge natural predators like seagulls and crabs on the beach, and then paddle like crazy to get through the breakwater and waves whilst also trying to avoid the big fish and sharks that are waiting to have it for breakfast. Lauren had this to say about her experience of watching the whole process:
“Today the 31st of December 2012 (New Years Eve), I was monitoring a stretch of beach in the Ningaloo World Heritage Site and saw some tiny Green Turtle hatchlings struggling to make it from their nest to the safety of the ocean. They must have just been born, having first broken out of their eggshells nearly a foot under the sand, and then digging their way out, before facing the dangers of the beach. They were no bigger than the palm of my hand and they didn’t even weigh enough to make a dent in the sand. Seeing turtle hatchlings in the first few minutes of life, rushing towards the ocean’s edge for their first touch of water is a euphoric experience and one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. If it wasn’t for the Ningaloo Turtle Program here in the Cape Range National Park, I would have never had this fantastic opportunity.”
The threats facing marine turtles globally are increasing every year. As well as having to dodge their natural predators when they are first born on the beaches, in Australia there are introduced predators like feral cats, dogs and foxes to contend with, and the myriad anthropomorphic threats that lead to massive turtle mortality. These include; boat-strike by propeller, getting caught in fishing gear and drowning, swallowing plastic rubbish and choking to death, being hunted for food or the souvenir trade and loss of habitat – tourism and oil and gas exploration being the main culprits. All seven species of marine turtle are now listed by CITES as Endangered, with the Hawksbill listed as Critically Endangered. As a result, it is now estimated by marine scientists that only one in ten thousand marine turtles survives to sexual maturity. That makes every single turtle you see in your lifetime a genuine miracle of survival.
The NTP is a superb example of a successful collaboration between Government, the local community, external volunteers and the Corporations, in this case oil & gas companies, which provide the funding for projects like these. Marine turtles are Ancient Mariners, that have been making their annual journeys of thousands of kilometres around the World’s oceans for millennia, and it is not too late to protect them if action is taken now. South Pacific Projects has decided to focus its efforts on supporting more community-based marine turtle conservation initiatives in 2013, whilst continuing our successful collaboration with Dr. Cara Miller of Whale & Dolphin Conservation.
Howard Foster – Exmouth, Western Australia