I floated weightlessly over the coral. The current at Turquoise Drift took me for a ride along Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. The coral was a twisted kaleidoscope below me. Blue-green chromis were scattered like confetti above the blue-tipped branching staghorn coral. Raccoon butterflyfish poked pointed mouths between branches, daintily nibbling coral polyps.
A school of convict surgeonfish streamed past, cream and black striped bodies swarming over the reef. They descended in a mass onto a coral head, grazing on algae in a mess of writhing scales. Overwhelmed by the swarm, territorial damselfish were pushed deep into the branching coral, away from their personal algae gardens.
A green turtle glided towards me, flapping its flippers like a bird beats its wings. Sunlight rippled across her patterned shell as she ascended to breathe. I poked my head out of the water in time to hear her raspy inhale. We swam together for the next fifteen minutes. She kept a watchful eye on me, tolerating my presence.
It was such a peaceful experience and reminded me why I was here. It is peak turtle nesting season on the Ningaloo Coast. The Ningaloo Turtle Program had chosen me to be their Multimedia and Communications team leader. I’d taken two months off work and made my way across Australia to Exmouth, a sleepy town over halfway up the West Australian coast. My job is to share the story of Ningaloo’s turtles.
Every morning before sunrise I join the volunteers on the beaches. Following them on their daily monitoring session, and photographing the work of the Ningaloo Turtle Program. Each volunteer walks a section of beach recording turtle tracks. Carefully noting the species and if each individual nested successfully.
Together this data creates a valuable resource for the Western Australia Parks and Wildlife service. When analysed it shows how many turtles are nesting and where on the Ningaloo Coast they prefer. Knowledge of turtle nesting hotspots informs management decisions, such as where to put a new beach campsite. This is essential for sea turtle conservation.
You might think a morning walk along the beach sounds easy. It would be except for the heat, flies and steep sand dunes! It’s almost 30 degrees Celsius by 7 o’clock in the morning here, soon climbing to 40. And the flies! They swarm around me, sit on my backpack, fly around my head. At any given time there is one in my ear, another crawling under my sunnies and a third tickling my bottom lip. Over time they settle but a grab for my water bottle raises a thick, black cloud around my head beginning the torture anew. Fortunately, there are usually enough turtle tracks to distract me from these gripes.
This morning I was extremely lucky. A turtle was still nesting when we arrived on the beach. Buried in a hole so deep we could barely see the top of her shell. Only the occasional spray of sand alerted us to her presence. She was covering her eggs. We gave her plenty of space and stayed still. If a nesting turtle is disturbed it will abandon its efforts and head back to the ocean. If a turtle gets the urge to lay eggs but fails to nest multiple times it will expel its eggs into the water. The chance of a hatchling making it to adulthood is already only one in one thousand, we didn’t want to make the odds worse.
With one last flick of sand the eggs were hidden. Agonisingly slowly the turtle began dragging herself out of the hole. She crawled back down the beach, pulling her 100 kilogram bulk along using her front flippers. She hesitated at the rock platform leading into the water.
Finally, choosing a path, she heaved herself onto the sharp rocks. Thick, leathery flippers strained as she pulled herself over the uneven surface. She stopped to rest, then in a last burst of energy pulled herself to the edge until the front of her body tipped over the ledge. A wave crashed over her and she was gone, I couldn’t even see a dark smudge under the water’s surface. I exhaled a breath I didn’t realise I was holding.
Every time I see a turtle make its way back to the ocean I can’t help but wonder how they do it. Its physically exhausting, nesting all night then crawling back to sea. The odds are against them but every night here on the Ningaloo Coast turtles are coming ashore to nest. In my short time here I’ve grown to love this place. The chance to photograph these incredible animals and share their story has been an enriching experience. I feel like I’m giving these animals a voice, that is what makes this my favourite ethical travel destination.
- Christine Fernance
- : My name’s Chris, I love all things marine and photography. I grew up on the Australian east coast and studied marine science. I’m currently based in Canberra working for the Department of Environment but have taken two months leave to complete an internship at Ningaloo Reef. Learning about the natural world inspires me to photograph the animals and places I see and share this with others. I am really interested in science communication and hope to move my career in this direction. To help me practice this I regularly post about research and all things outdoors on my blog.
- : https://scratchings.blog/
- : https://www.facebook.com/swimmingwombat/
- : https://www.instagram.com/swimmingwombat/
- : If you have an interest in animals, photography, science or travel my blog is the perfect place for you! I combine interesting stories with eye-catching images to share incredible experiences. Photography has opened up opportunities I didn’t think existed. In the last year alone I’ve seen quolls have health checks, watched a researcher count wren eggs, cuddled a baby wombat, explored Ningaloo Reef and SCUBA dived the remote Lissenung Island off Papua New Guinea. I know everyone can’t have these experiences which is why I try to share some of the incredible things I’ve seen through my blog.
- : adult_(19_and_over_as_of_31st_december_2019)
- : This is the first time this story has been published.