A place called home

Way up north on the tracks of tur­tles

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - TR­ISHA WIL­SON

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

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