A place called home
Way up north on the tracks of turtles
FAIR conditions are expected for our seafaring journey tonight and I’m feeling relieved as our vessel, the 10m allaluminium SnubFin, looks surprisingly small.
It will take our group on a Sea Darwin’s Turtle Tracks tour from Darwin’s Stoke Hill Wharf to Bare Sand Island, 50km to the west.
As our so-called Team Turtle, Nat and Michelle, prepare to cast off, skipper Jim assures us the boat is basically a flotation device, adding with a smile, ‘‘I know we’ve all heard that before.’’ One bright spark mutters something about the Titanic and with that we are into open waters and our chance to make real a dream of spending an evening with egg-laying flatback sea turtles.
Seven species of sea turtles are considered vulnerable or endangered and are protected by international legislation, but flatbacks are the only ones endemic to a single country. Unlike other oceanic wanderers, flatbacks remain on the continental shelf, returning to the Australian beach of their birth to nest.
Bare Sand Island has one such beach and it’s part of an island group with the dubious history of being an air weapons range in the 30 years following World War II. Once ashore, Nat and Michelle give tips on turtle etiquette sprinkled with a few on health and safety regarding unexploded ordnances — we agree to stay in a group and not to fiddle with bits of exposed metal.
The island has, in theory, been cleared unlike nearby Quail Island, which is still a no-go zone for visitors.
At the centre of Bare Sand is a deep, sandy crater. A solitary tree is perched on a vegetated hillock and there’s an unexpected cluster of tents protected by the dune edge. Home to Aus Turtle, a non-profit organisation involved with sea turtle conservation, volunteers and researchers hunker down here for several weeks each year during the nesting season.
A young volunteer sprints up the dune face with a bucket of hatchlings. ‘‘We found them heading inland,’’ she tells us. They are palm-sized replicas of their parents and we experience the joy of releasing them at the water’s edge towards a setting sun.
Turtle-viewing etiquette involves standing very still, difficult though that is in a desire to help the hatchlings battle through the shallows and surf. Facing enough hazards as it is, a misdirected footstep would be a disaster. Only one in 1000 hatchlings will grow up and those returning here to lay eggs do so after the ‘‘lost years’’ — decades at sea when they literally vanish from sight.
Team Turtle’s walkie-talkies crackle with news that several females are plodding dunewards. Nat and Michelle’s knowledge of all things to do with turtles is illuminating as we sit on the beach in the increasing darkness waiting for the all clear to approach a nesting mother.
Further etiquette excludes the use of torches and camera flashes. Bathed in a wash of red lamplight we watch mother turtle delicately excavate a 50cm-deep hole with her back flippers. About 50 white, leathery eggs arrive in a slippery cascade and a salty-looking tear glistens in one of her eyes. Backfilling the nest she inches forward, scooping and paddling more sand into a decoy nest. The only sound is the meditative swishing of sand.
Moments later, members of the Aus Turtle group leap into action, measuring and recording before she turns and lumbers back to sea. There she will mate again, returning two or three times during the nesting season to lay more eggs. During this time she will not feed.
But it’s the dinner hour for us and back aboard SnubFin we eat beneath a starry sky. As the flatbacks and our boat head out to sea on moonlit waves, I decide this really is what dreams are made of.
A palm-sized turtle heads seawards under the setting sun