Sav­ing Aus­tralia’s only en­demic sea tur­tle.

Each year at Ayr in Queens­land, flat­back tur­tles drag them­selves up the beach to nest, all un­der the watch­ful eye of con­ser­va­tion­ists.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY JACK MUR­PHY

AS THE FULL MOON peeks through the clouds and the high tide qui­etly laps the shore­line, we mount a fleet of sandy quad bikes and care­fully ride up and down a de­serted beach near Ayr in north­ern Queens­land. With a se­ries of bikes in a row, the coast­line looks more like a high­way than a flat­back tur­tle nest­ing area. Un­der the guid­ance of the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal rangers, two ma­rine bi­ol­o­gists and a hand­ful of vol­un­teers from Queens Beach Ac­tion Group, we look for flat­backs or their tracks. They’re here to lay their eggs, and it’s a vi­tal op­por­tu­nity to gather data and learn more about this elu­sive species.

While nest­ing, flat­backs aren’t hard to find. They leave trenches in their wake as they drag them­selves up the beach to the dune. If we find two sets of tracks – up and back again – it means we’ve missed the mother. If we only find one set, she’s ei­ther still head­ing up to the dune to nest, or al­ready lay­ing her eggs.

Fi­nally, we get the call; one of the search par­ties has found a flat­back. When we ar­rive, we’re told to keep our dis­tance un­til she starts to lay – too close, and she might spook and re­turn to the wa­ter. She digs, moves, digs and moves again, un­til she fi­nally finds the per­fect spot. If noth­ing else, her in­de­ci­sive­ness is tes­ta­ment to her strong ma­ter­nal in­stincts.

“Once she has fin­ished dig­ging and started lay­ing, we can approach her. They are so fo­cused on lay­ing they go into an al­most trance-like state and our pres­ence doesn’t seem to bother them,” whis­pers Ian Bell of the Queens­land gov­ern­ment’s Threat­ened Species Unit.

Even­tu­ally the dig­ging stops and the 80kg rep­tile be­gins lay­ing. This fe­male is seem­ingly un­per­turbed by us, and Ian sig­nals for us to get closer. She’s a beauty: olive and yel­low with pre­his­toric-look­ing flip­pers and a weather-beaten cara­pace that, up close, looks like an old trea­sure map. Un­blink­ing, she is fo­cused on her task and after 30 min­utes all 47 of her eggs are laid, and she buries them un­der al­most 1m of sand.

Lit­tle is known about the move­ments and diet of the flat­back. This is sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing that it is Aus­tralia’s only en­demic ma­rine tur­tle (see AG 123). Be­fore let­ting her re­turn to the wa­ter, we take her back to camp so the crew can take sam­ples. At base, the team hastily fits her with a ‘back­pack’ satel­lite tag – worth $5000 – to record the tur­tle’s lo­ca­tion, wa­ter tem­per­a­ture and depth. A ti­ta­nium tag is at­tached to her flip­per and a pit tag is in­jected un­der her skin –

like a mi­crochip for pets – to iden­tify her in the fu­ture.

Fi­nally, they mea­sure her cara­pace length and take blood and tis­sue sam­ples. It’s vi­tal to gather as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble, be­cause it’s in­valu­able to ma­rine bi­ol­o­gists such as Chris­tine Hof of WWF Aus­tralia. “We know lit­tle about where they for­age, what they feed on and the route they take from a nest­ing beach,” she says.

For the past two years, WWF, the Queens­land Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment and Her­itage Pro­tec­tion and James Cook Univer­sity (JCU) have been track­ing their mi­gra­tion us­ing satel­lite trans­mit­ters. “Iso­tope anal­y­sis helps de­ter­mine both their for­ag­ing grounds and diet,” Chris­tine adds.“So far, we’ve learnt that adult flat­backs nest­ing on a beach near Home Hill mi­grate 490km south to Cape Town­shend or 720km away north to Cape Melville, with one tur­tle for­ag­ing way up north near Mil­man Islet, 1100km away.”

Ian says that they don’t know ex­actly what flat­back tur­tles eat, “but they are soft-bod­ied things like sea squirts, soft corals, sea urchins and sponges.That’s about the ex­tent of what we know so far, and this project will help us find out more.”

With so many threats to the ma­rine ecosys­tem, this study is cru­cial to the flat­back’s sur­vival. With data comes the un­der­stand­ing of how to bet­ter pro­tect them and their en­vi­ron­ment. Along with WWF and JCU, the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal rangers have been vi­tal to the man­age­ment and con­ser­va­tion of the tur­tle’s habi­tat. Rep­re­sent­ing the tra­di­tional own­ers of the Bin­dal, Ngaro and Juru na­tions on the Great Bar­rier Reef coast is a group called the Gud­juda In­dige­nous Land and Sea Rangers.

Headed by Ed­die Small­wood, aka ‘Un­cle Ed­die’, the team is based in Ayr, with their re­gion cov­er­ing the Whit­sun­day Is­lands up to Townsville. A nim­ble group of five, they sup­port the lo­cal com­mu­nity and en­vi­ron­ment with train­ing pro­grams, bio­di­ver­sity sur­veys, lo­cal dis­as­ter re­lief and tur­tle mon­i­tor­ing, tag­ging, track­ing and pro­tec­tion.

“Our rangers are also help­ing to pre­serve and pro­tect our cul­ture, be­cause it’s about our cul­ture be­ing trained back into our peo­ple,” he says. “We all need to work to­gether to man­age and pro­tect the tur­tles be­cause if we don’t look after them, who will?”

Once hatched, thou­sands of baby tur­tles (op­po­site) make their way to the sea. Mor­tal­ity is high­est in shal­low wa­ters, so they must swim fre­net­i­cally to­wards the open ocean.

Satel­lite tags at­tached by WWF Aus­tralia in 2014–15 re­veal the mi­gra­tion routes of four flat­back tur­tles – Badgi­gal, Gungu, Katya and Wun­junga – as they moved from Shoal­wa­ter Bay in the south, to Cape Grenville, near the top of Cape York Penin­sula, in the north.

Headed by Ed­die Small­wood (right, at cen­tre), lo­cal Gud­juda In­dige­nous Land and Sea Rangers and vol­un­teers catch an 80kg flat­back. Flat­back eggs (be­low) are counted and weighed.

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