Hands-on with turtle re­search on a re­mote West Aus­tralian beach

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

IT must surely rate as one of the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing travel ex­pe­ri­ences of all time: serv­ing as mid­wife to a flat­back turtle on a hot white-sand beach near Broome at the top of West­ern Aus­tralia.

It was at such a mo­ment that Rasha Sky­bey’s de­ci­sion to switch from a ca­reer in law to one ded­i­cated to con­ser­va­tion was thor­oughly vin­di­cated.

‘‘I’d never ever en­coun­tered a turtle be­fore. She came on to the shore in the mid­dle of the day, which is highly un­usual, and right there in front of the re­sort she de­cided to dig and lay her eggs,’’ Sky­bey says.

‘‘The most mag­i­cal thing about it was that we were ac­tu­ally as­sist­ing this pre­his­toric crea­ture.

‘‘She was com­pletely obliv­i­ous to us, and in a hyp­notic state. I felt like a bit of a mid­wife: I was help­ing her, rub­bing her back. She laid about 40 eggs, which was quite a num­ber.’’

Sky­bey was on as­sign­ment with Bio­sphere Ex­pe­di­tions, an award­win­ning non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion es­tab­lished by Ger­man-born bi­ol­o­gist Matthias Ham­mer. The or­gan­i­sa­tion chan­nels labour as well as funds to se­lect sci­en­tific projects across the world via ex­pe­di­tion team mem­bers.

While trav­ellers busy them­selves col­lect­ing data, read­ing an­i­mal tracks and set­ting up wildlife cam­eras, their ex­pe­di­tion fee is hard at work, too, with at least twothirds of the cost be­ing rein­vested into the pro­ject at hand.

The ex­pe­di­tions have yielded out­stand­ing re­sults over the past decade, such as the in­cor­po­ra­tion of rec­om­men­da­tions into the man­age­ment of jaguars in Brazil and co­ral reefs in Hon­duras, the dec­la­ra­tion of a pro­tected area for snow leop­ards in the Al­tai Repub­lic in Rus­sian Cen­tral Asia, and a re­duc­tion in the num­bers of big cats be­ing killed by Namib­ian farm­ers.

And the com­pany per­pet­u­ates the ethos of con­ser­va­tion at the lo­cal level, too, Ham­mer says.

‘ ‘ We al­ways have lo­cal ca­pac­ity-build­ing projects such as schol­ar­ships and train­ing. We’re try­ing to train lo­cals to de­liver projects on the ground so we can har­ness peo­ple’s en­thu­si­asm for con­ser­va­tion.’’

As Sky­bey dis­cov­ered in Broome, such en­thu­si­asm is re­warded a thou­sand­fold: her eggcount­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was an im­por­tant part of a study on the sta­tus of flat­back tur­tles, a breed that nests ex­clu­sively in Aus­tralia and is be­lieved to be en­dan­gered.

‘ ‘ Our role was to as­sist the sci­en­tists to de­ter­mine nest­ing num­bers by mea­sur­ing and tag­ging, se­lect­ing DNA sam­ples and record­ing data.

‘‘There isn’t enough data as yet to de­ter­mine whether they are en­dan­gered or not,’’ she ex­plains.

The pres­ence of the flat­back — nick­named the Vir­gin Turtle, as it was the first time she had laid eggs and per­haps she was dis­ori­ented and con­fused — caused ex­cite­ment on the same beach where it is likely she was hatched some years ear­lier.

‘‘There were a num­ber of mem­bers of the gen­eral pub­lic watch­ing, but they weren’t al­lowed to get in­volved,’’ Sky­bey says.

‘‘We had the train­ing, we had to wear gloves, and a sci­en­tist su­per­vised us at all times.

‘‘Peo­ple aren’t en­cour­aged to go up [ to a turtle] and do this.’’

But Bio­sphere Ex­pe­di­tions does en­cour­age peo­ple of all ages and abil­i­ties to make a prac­ti­cal con­tri­bu­tion in a field once of­flim­its to all but the learned sci­en­tific com­mu­nity.

And the im­pact of its projects can be felt way be­yond the realm of wildlife and marine re­serves; Sky­bey was prompted to trade in her legal job in Syd­ney for a ca­reer with a Mel­bourne-based en­vi­ron­men­tal group.

Such a trans­for­ma­tion of a vol­un­teer spells huge suc­cess for Ham­mer, who hopes to ex­pose as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble to the con­ser­va­tion bug.

‘‘There has been a change in attitude,’’ he says. ‘‘Rather than just con­sum­ing, peo­ple want to con­trib­ute. And rather than watch­ing David At­ten­bor­ough wildlife doc­u­men­taries, we want to make sure they get out there and do it them­selves.’’

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