Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ninja Turtle Tagging

Loggerhead Turtle, Caretta caretta (Tyler Roberts)
Now that I have posted pictures and comments all about Dirk Hartog Island I thought, maybe I should actually write about the reason I was there in the first place.  My boss Kirk worked it out for Adriana and I to volunteer with The Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) as turtle taggers during the Loggerhead Turtle breeding season on the Island.  We have been working with turtles out on the water for the last few months but have not yet had the chance to see them nesting.  I was ecstatic about the opportunity to see a little further into this ancient reptile’s life history.

Work would begin for us around 9:30 pm, after the sun had dropped its last rays from the sky and the only light came from the moon and stars. The stars, by the way, are incredible here, hundreds of miles away from everything.  The first night we all went out together, six people in total, to have our introduction to the process.  After that night the team was split in two so that we could cover more ground each night.  The DEC ranger took two people with here and because Adriana and I were already proficient in the procedure of turtle tagging and behavioral analysis we headed our own group, which actually only included one other person who was more than capable herself and keen to learn anything she could.

A short break for the team. (Tyler Roberts)

Some of the turtles had to be marked in order to avoid redundancy. (Adriana Weil)
Our team, self-titled “Ninja” as in “Ninja Turtle”, would cover 2-3 beaches a night, walking up an down the full length of each beach spotting turtles, assessing behavior and tagging those that were far enough along in the process that we would not interrupt their behavior.  It was only after they had laid their eggs and were covering up the nests that we were allowed to take some measurements, clear them of obstructing barnacles and tag them.

There are four behaviors exhibited by turtles during the nesting process.  The first is body pitting, after they decide a spot is suitable to dig a nest they begin to throw sand about with all flippers and work them selves down a few inches through the soft and loose top sand.  Then they dig the egg chamber using only their back flippers.  It is a hole perhaps 1-1.5 feet down and up to a foot wide.  Once this is complete they begin laying eggs.  A turtle will lay about 150 eggs on average in a single nest and it can take 10 minutes for some or 45 for others.  Once laid they immediately begin covering the nest with sand and it is then that we are allowed to start taking information and tag them.  The turtles are so affixed to what they are doing at that point that they hardly seem to notice our presence.

The full Turtle Team; Me, Kasey, Clare, Mira, Lia, Adriana (Tyler Roberts)

Earlier in the process turtles can be easily disturbed and will move locations if you are not careful.  They are quite sensitive to light and though we did have head lights we avoided using them as much as possible.  When the moon was high in the sky and shining bright they were pointless anyways.

A great view of egg laying through a shark bite window. (Adriana Weil)

(Lia Scagliani)
On the last day we decided to tag through the night and sleep on the beach till sunrise. As we walked back towards the car along the beach we spotted a turtle that had gotten stuck in a crack in the rocks on its way back towards the ocean.  It’s rear end was wedged into the crack with its head and fore flippers poking out of the top.  There is no telling how long it had been there but that position is very unnatural for a sea turtle and it was clearly on its way out.  Its eyes were sunken in and it’s breathing labored with each inhalation.  The poor thing had made it within two meters of the waters edge we just couldn’t let it go out like that.  We hurried over to it and Lia and I got ourselves in a position to lift it free from the bottom while the others helped from the front end.  We lifted it smoothly and it immediately made its way the short distance to freedom.

It was a great feeling, the best feeling, to help save an animal from certain death.  It is a feeling of worth and importance, a high that comes on quick and fades slowly.  It was the perfect way to end our time on Dirk Hartog Island.

Around 5:30 am on the last night tagging.(Adriana Weil)

(Tyler Roberts)

1 comment:

  1. You've witnessed something primal and timeless, thank you for sharing it