A turtle walk
Look at Me Now Headland Turtle Walk with Karla, a Coffs Ambassadors tour, NSW, August 15
This walk at Look at Me Now Headland was spectacular, the mob of roos up top silhouetted, uncovered my first snake of the season, a Diamond Python slipping across the path without a backward look, fresh bright colours. The grassy headland itself has unique plants and ecology. Now that it’s a reserve, no dogs allowed is closely cropped by kangaroos.
A pair of Whistling Kites were wheeling over the beach. One folded down, pale tail feathers splayed almost onto the water, seeing something, feeling something we can’t.
We sit on the edge above the swirling water near an outcrop of black rock, clenched shutes of white water punching into the rock, wedging into a shattering thunder and sparkling fountains. Beyond are billows of sand and a green-blue seasick carpet, our focus, waiting for round brown shields to emerge. This is the Solitary Islands Marine Park, which I wrote the Cabinet Minute for about 25 years ago.
The sky is cobalt blue, the colour of old apothecary jars. We glimpsed one, then another checked head periscope out for ten seconds before diving back and leaving behind the white noise of our world.
This part of the coast is one of only two places (the other Kiama) where the Great Dividing Range meets the sea, the Solitary Islands out to sea are all mountain tops submerged 10,000 years ago. The old coast line is 18ks out to sea and about 60 meters deep. Hence a great variety of marine habitats.
It is also rich in biodiversity because it is where the warm Queensland waters flowing down mix with colder ocean waters flowing up. It is the northern limit of the giant cuttlefish and southern limit of hard corals.
Of six species of turtle found in Australia, three are found here and another, the Leatherback is pelagic and passes through. Occasionally they nest here, but usually late in the season. They feed here and nest further north in warmer parts.
The Green turtle is most common here, feed on algae and other vegetation, and can be most clearly seen in the marina. They grow to 1m in length, the shell is olive-green, brown and black.
The Loggerheads with sharp beaks crunch crabs and shellfish.
The Hawksbill, the smallest turtle in the world, feeds on sponges and cunjevois mainly.
Turtles have to breath so we saw three turtles – or one three times, coming up for air, usually every 20 -30 minutes. The record is 5 hours; they can slow their heartbeat to one beat every 9 minutes. They shed skin of keratin (scutes) plates to protect the shell (except the Leatherback which has strips of leather)
They don’t mate until around 25 years old, and the female can carry the sperm for many males, so a clutch may contain many fathers.
Circa 1980 I visited Pangkor Island off Seri Manjung, Western Malaysia. I stayed at Sam Khoo’s Mini Camp, a few wooden huts on the beach (now known as Coral View Beach Resort ‘with 142 hotel styled rooms’). I happened to be there for the egg laying and went out with my torch and waited alone until these humped dinosaurs emerged from the sea lugging their bulk up the beach. They took no notice of me, as they excavated their holes backwards. I shone my torch on the soft eggs squeezing out of the cloaca and tumbling in, a hundred or more. They covered them awkwardly and spread the sand around to hide the site before ponderously heading back to the ocean. An amazing experience being alone amongst five or so heavy slow instinctive animals, coming back to the same beach they were born in perhaps 30 years before, a generation of many thousands perhaps coming to the same beach.
The second night I encouraged a couple of students to accompany me. I liked them. They had fled Ipoh and their heroin addiction, thinking a tropical island might save them. They were amazed but disappeared after that night on the beach.
I have watched turtles off Panglao Island, Bohol, Southern Philippines, and saw Green Turtles mating just off the beach at Heron Island. It is always a rewarding experience, they are so unlikely.
The sex of the hatchling is dependent on the temperature of the sand the eggs are incubated in. They escape the shell and wait for each other before digging their way out of the sand. Once on the beach they head to sea by orienting themselves towards the brightest direction and using the horizon line (hence problems with development and street lighting). They have to dodge predators on the way and then once they are in the sea. An estimated one in 1000 survive to mating age.
Another sighting, just a glimpse, their snatch of breath so efficient. Art and cinema is left behind as we sit there reaching through the waves and swell, in appreciation of the dinosaurs, in a rhetoric of wonder.
It is very hard to estimate numbers. Karla thought about five individuals use this spot for feeding. Sea turtles have lived for more than 100 million years and survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, but turtles all over the world now face an uncertain future.
In summary, the major threatening processes leading to significant mortality in marine turtles are:
(a) Mortality from direct exploitation or by-catch
- hunting of turtles for food throughout their ranges (in Australia, such hunting is legal only for indigenous peoples wishing to consume their traditional foods, though there is no requirement that traditional hunting methods be used).
- the taking of turtle eggs from natural nest sites for human consumption (the previous comments on indigenous Australians also apply)
- the taking of eggs and hatchling turtles by native and exotic animal predators such as seabirds, foxes, monitor lizards and pigs
- the by-catch of turtles in trawls, shark-nets, drift nets and on long lines
- the taking of some species of turtles for their shells (for taxidermy, or for use of the carapace plates in the manufacture of curios); illegal throughout Australia and importation prohibited.
(b) Mortality from ecosystem degradation
- Pollution (e.g. chemical, from agricultural runoff; physical, from siltation or repeated trawling) of key habitats, including feeding grounds
- Physical degradation of breeding sites (e.g. tourism, recreational vehicles, removal of benthic biota and topographic features by repeated trawling)
- Physical damage caused to individual animals through recreational small craft, outboard motors, etc and subsequent loss of habitat quality
Dr Harold G. Cogger in a report for NSW NPWS
The problem is that turtles move about hence, “No conservation action within NSW, involving either legislation or population management, is likely to have any significant impact on the conservation status of the relevant species – globally, nationally or within NSW. That is, the conservation of most taxa occurring within NSW will continue to depend on the security of their populations outside the territorial boundaries of NSW.” Dr Cogger
The males never come onto land so to tag them some rodeoing is necessary:
Karla was an excellent guide, passionate and knowledgeable. She has a science degree in coastal management and has worked in sea turtle research and conservation in Queensland.
Development and the need for tourists to live it up is a huge problem. The Coral Resort boasts: “The island boasts of crystal clear waters nurturing bountiful growths of colourful corals. Exotic flora and fauna abound in this area. Rare orchids can be seen along jungle treks. butterflier ‘tamely’ land on outstretched plams. Colourful birds can be seen perched on the trees at the hill slopes. You may possibly catch a glimpe of monkeys swinging from the branches…” It’s not how I recall it. It was very poor, and quiet. The fishermen had been using dynamite and so the corals were sparse, and in any case mainly to be found in a small neighbouring island.