Exploring Ningaloo – week 2

My first full day off, I was heading out to the Park at 6am. I stopped when I arrived at the sign for Lakeside and climbed out of the car. An osprey was sitting on top of the sign. Grabbing my camera I moved closer slowly taking a few frames. It quickly became used to my presence and started pulling at something between its claws. Looking through my telephoto I realised the bird had half a fish in its oversized dinosaur-like foot. The talons on the bird were huge, black and sharp. The legs looked almost too large. It soon flew off, carrying the fish tail in one foot. I moved on to Lakeside and saw a fin and tail tip of a shark in the shallows, it also quickly disappeared.

A pair of white osprey fledglings sit in a  nest of sticks, one with it's beak open, tongue out
But I’m hungry now!

I swapped my camera for snorkelling gear and headed out. Lakeside is the closest snorkelling spot to Exmouth along the road into Cape Range National Park. It is one of three main sites, the others being Turquoise Bay and Oyster Stacks. You need a high tide of at least 1.2 metres to snorkel oyster stacks. I’d already seen Turquoise Bay with Mitch and been to Lakeside with the group, discovering its strong current. Heading out today there was barely any current and the visibility was much better, it seemed like a completely different place. The first bommie I came across had a large ray resting under its edge. I spotted two clownfish scaring larger grey damselfish away from their small anemone home on the edge of the coral. Chromis darted around and the odd narrow lined puffer sat on the sand, as if still half asleep. These fish look too heavy to swim at the best of times with their bloated, head heavy shape and tiny fins. I came across a green turtle, it looked young as the edges of its shell were serrated, making me look twice to know if I was confusing it with a hawksbill. Then the current seemed to stir and the turtle gracefully swam off into it.

Landscape view at lakeside of the seaweed filled rock pools, green ocean in the background

A school of convict surgeonfish swept my way. Then a large school of grunter arrived, swimming in an arc around me. They began feeding on the algae, each taking turns to move in, grab some and move away. Sometimes one would get it stuck in their mouth and swim away trailing a huge clump. Brown debris filled the water, making it murkier. These fish were large, over half a metre but placid looking with their smooth bodies and large eye, they seemed like underwater cows. I loved being amongst them and swam into the school, they swirled around me then let me stay with them and kept feeding. Around and around they passed me, only a metre or two away. I felt so small but suddenly included as most fish here would swim off on my approach but this school had let me join them.

A school of large grunter swim by, brown algae drifts in the front

Sunday was the first day of summer. It’s nice waking up to a hot day, the corellas were back to their antics flying over and screeching. Driving into the park, I came across five dingoes running along the road together. I stopped and started taking photos through the lowered passenger side window. They were very healthy looking and beautifully backlit by the rising sun which turned everything gold. The dingo population in the park has increased, possibly due to campers leaving behind food scraps. There are signs as you enter the park not to feed or approach dingoes. Rangers are keeping an eye on this and will euthanise any with mange as it is a highly transmittable disease. I felt safe enough from my car as the dingoes ran by, I’m not sure how I’d feel out camping alone at night.

A rim lit dingo runs past the camera, one paw in the air, looking over his shoulder
Walkies?
Five dingoes run along the main road, we're looking at the tail end

There was a pair of bustards beside the road. They are large birds that would reach my mid thigh if I could get close enough to stand next to one. They have a grey body, black capped head and long legs. They look like skinny emus but surprised me by taking flight on large wings, another skittish animal. I spent the morning snorkelling at Lakeside again. A blue spotted stingray frightened me by taking off from the sand, throwing up a cloud of silt as it jetted off. I hadn’t even seen it lying there. Driving home I had to stop and let an adult male emu and his six half grown chicks cross the road. Teaching them bad habits already! They walked around the motel rooms and pecked at the ground around our BBQ. Two chicks couldn’t work out how to follow the rest of the group around the pool fence and ended up running the opposite way making high pitched noises, as if to say “Dad where are you?!” I heard his deep guttural rumble, so did the chicks who soon worked out how to rejoin their family.

A half grown emu stands in the only shade, beak open in the heat
An emu juvenile looks through the pool fence at the blue water
Dad can we pleeeeease go in the pool?!

After lunch I drove out to Oyster Stacks. Heading down the path you come to a rock platform, the rocks at the edge have natural ledges allowing you to step down into the water. There are four large rocks offshore covered in oysters. About 150 metres out to sea, waves crash on the edge of the aqua lagoon. Dark blue water sits on the far side of the white waves. I read in the tourist booklet this is one of the closest points Ningaloo reef comes to shore, I wonder how that affects the snorkelling? Putting my face under I can see coral as far as the 10-15 metre vis will allow. It’s so much clearer here! There is less than a metre of water between my knees and the coral I’m floating over. It is very different to the other sites, the further out you swim the denser the coral grows, with lots of branching varieties. It reminds me more of a garden with close planted bushes, compared to the more higgledy piggledy planting at Turquoise drift. The fish are very active here, there are more parrotfish and other species I hadn’t yet spotted on Ningaloo. I come across a clam filled with small moon wrasse darting in and out of it. Neon coloured blue damsels dart in as well. I look closer and discover these fish seem to be eating the clam. Another feeding frenzy is happening further on, there seems to be a large fish of every colour involved. This place seems so alive but on a limited timer. I leave as the tide drops and the fish start to disappear.

Moon wrasse, a racoon butterflyfish and blue damsels swim in and around a brown clam shell

The turtle watching tour was an interesting experience. We met at the Jurabi turtle centre at sunset. This place has shade sails arranged in a turtle shape and gives tourists enough information to watch turtles without disturbing them. Our guide went through a plethora of turtle information, filling time as the sun set and it grew dark. Finally we headed as a group down to the beach. Turtles could be seen coming up from the water 400 metres away. We were told to sit in the sand and wait until they crawled up into the dunes. While we waited the moon and stars came out. There was only a small sliver of moon but it cast enough light to see by, this was fortunate as we’d been told to leave all lights behind. After half an hour of waiting it was time to move up the beach so we walked 200 metres along the waters edge. Arriving closer we could see there were two turtles busily digging their body pits, sand was flying everywhere so we stayed back. One guide went up to check their progress, radioing through that we could move closer, by crawling in single file along the beach. We continued waiting. One turtle gave up early and headed back to sea, making her way down the beach through the middle of the group. The digging turtle continued, we kept waiting and watched the stars. Finally the turtle began chambering so we commando crawled up the beach in pairs to the guide waiting with a red light. Half an hour later I had my turn, it was a big group with 26 people and 2 guides out for the evening. I peered over into the hole and saw the back end of a turtle. Craning my neck I could see the pile of wet looking eggs below her and the occasional egg plopping out in the glow of the red torch. Less than a minute and I was back down the beach. It was a nice thing to see but I found it difficult to enjoy with such a large group. I arrived home at 10pm, a long day after a 5am wake up, which didn’t end until I’d washed all the sand off.

The next day I was lucky enough to join one of the marine rangers, a fisheries officer and a lady from the Department of Environment. They were heading out on the boat Mayabula to retrieve acoustic loggers used to monitor vessel activity. We headed almost 60 nautical miles to the logger in a rough down the coast-and-out-a-bit direction. The skipper had to slow down to dodge coral bommies. In the clear turquoise water we saw a large female green turtle swimming just below the surface. We moved out of the bommies and picked up speed, bouncing along but making very good time. Then we saw a group of dolphins snubbing, which means sticking their heads out of the water to look at us then quickly ducking underneath. They were very curious. As they moved on we took off, intent on getting through the journey now. The red rock gorges and white sandy dunes of the Ningaloo coast on our left contrasted beautifully with the turquoise coloured water. We soon moved further out, into the darker blue, disturbing flying fish along the way. We were approaching the logger and in very deep blue coloured ocean. A marlin splashed on my left. Sadly technology was not on our side today and the logger was not retrieved.

A dolphins fin and back break the blue/green ocean surface

On the trip back there was less wildlife, then we moved in closer to the reef. The gorgeous green water was back and the dunes were in sight again. We spotted another pod of dolphins, more turtles and two turtles mating close to where surf was breaking on the reef edge. They seemed to be belly to belly which is not typical with flippers flying around all over the place, we soon left them to it. The skipper pointed out a manta ray.

“There she is, you can see her white underside, all mantas are female until proven otherwise, not quite sure why that is”. It just looked like a black shape slightly below the surface but was wonderful to see. Arriving back at the boat ramp I was recharged after spending a day on the water taking photos.

Landscape view from a  boat over the coral reef back to shore. The water is shades of blue and green and the land in yellow and covered in small green shrubs
Two turtle heads and a flipper break the waters surface

The highlight of Thursday was seeing a dead turtle that had been found on one of the beaches. We headed off to take some measurements, shovels at the ready. A 300 metre walk down the beach we approached a black lump sitting below the high tide mark. Waves washed around it. This was our turtle. I’m not sure how long it had been dead but both eyes were bulging out of its head. A ghost crab hovered around its dinner. It was a green turtle, an adult male as evident by the large tail. The sun had dried its shell out so it looked black. Parts of the shell were peeling off. After checking for flipper tags and getting our measurements, we stood around unsure of any words to say. We started to ponder if he’d died doing what he loved, it was mating season after all. We double checked the tide chart. It was on the way in and not even halfway to high tide. Picking up the shovels we walked back along the beach leaving the turtle to be disposed of by the ocean.

A ghost crab sits next to the head of a dead turtle near the wash
I don’t care how big it is, I’ll finish it!
A dead turtle in the wash is hit by a wave, white water is frozen midair by the camera

My first day of recording tracks alone went quite smoothly. As I took a photo of the beach a surfer ran through my frame down into the water. Along my 3.5 kilometre stretch there were only half a dozen turtle tracks, all from green turtles. Most were false crawls though, where a turtle would drag herself up the beach, go on a hole digging spree, decide she didn’t like any of the spots and crawl back out to sea. There was one nest, and a lot of pink fist-sized sea urchin tests all over the beach. There were so many intact that someone had made a love heart shape out of them. Arriving at the carpark I found the ute keys left for me and drove to the next beach along, Mauritius. This is a nudist beach but luckily I was alone. I radioed the girls and they still had another kilometre to go. I looked up the beach but couldn’t see anyone coming around the point so sat watching the ocean. Turtles bobbed up in the shallows coming up for breath. I watched a tern fishing. As it dived an old, roundish man walked fully naked out through the wash. Not as alone as I thought! I was luckier than the ladies I was waiting for, they copped the full frontal view when they walked up to me. Apparently they don’t usually get anyone there this early in the morning, I must have a special kind of luck. I’d survived my first day of monitoring, bring on the new volunteers!

Exploring Ningaloo – week 1

As I drove alone along Yardie Creek Road I took in the landscape. There were no trees, just low scrub punctuated by taller, red termite mounds. Approaching the turnoff to Cape Range National Park I saw 13 very tall white poles, pinned to the ground by taut wire ropes. The largest of these was over 300 metres high. They are part of the naval communications station and produce very low frequency radio transmissions to ships and submarines. Rounding the corner of the cape I passed a lighthouse on my left opposite deep blue ocean on my right. I drove past numerous access roads with strange names like Mauritius, Hunters and Jacobsz. Some were barely more than sandy tracks. After forty minutes I saw the Turquoise Bay sign and slowed to turn off.

View of termite mounds and the landscape at sunrise (looking towards the sun). The mounds are orange while the rising sun is turning the cloud undersides gold

Walking down to the drift snorkel the white sand contrasted blindingly with the turquoise coloured water. Swimming out it was murkier than the day before. All the same fish were there, bright yellow bluespot butterflyfish hovered elegantly over coral heads. Picasso triggerfish looked up at me from small depressions in the sand. Swimming further out I floated over an area of branching coral. A black tip reef shark about a metre long emerged from the distance and lazily swam around me. I turned to keep watching it. It circled me once, then again and swam off back out to deeper water. I let the current take me away over the small coral patches, eventually leaving so I was on time to meet the Ningaloo Turtle Program (NTP) coordinator and other team leaders arriving today.

Overhead view of a green turtle on sand, flippers extended mid stroke. Sunlight is making wavy patterns on the ocean floor and part of the turtle's shell
Overhead view of a blue spotted lagoon ray swimming over lumps of brown coral

I moved into a two bedroom apartment at the Potshot Hotel with the other female team leader. We had our own washer, dryer, cooktop and were near the pool, what luxury! Walking to the shops I came across an emu standing on the nature strip in the middle of the road. It was like a giant scruffy feather duster with long legs and huge clawed feet that made me think of a dinosaur. It pecked at something in the rocks, beak open in the 40 degree heat. As darkness fell the world cooled slightly. Corellas flew overhead, calling loudly and slightly mournfully, my first day alone in Exmouth was coming to an end. Heading to bed the mozzies kept me up with their piercing whine in my ear. I turned the aircon back on, it roared directly over my head and gave off a funny yellow glow. I didn’t get much sleep on my first night.

A corella sits by the side of the road, all the grass in the image is golden because the sun was setting

Our first day at the Parks and Wildlife depot was filled with signing forms, being introduced to people, a PowerPoint presentation and GPS and tablet training. I liked learning about the different turtle tracks. In the photos and drawings they seemed easy enough to tell apart. The green turtles move their front flippers simultaneously as if doing butterfly up the beach. This creates a tractor tyre mark with a flattened centre made by the plastron (turtle tummy) dragging along the sand. Green turtles poke their tail into the sand as they move. If you point your finger into a tail hole you’d find the turtle is moving in the opposite direction. The loggerhead and hawksbill turtles drag themselves with alternating flippers in a very sandy version of freestyle. Their front flippers leave a curved impression, with the top part of the J pointing to their travel direction, this is much more pronounced on the hawksbill track which is also a lot narrower than the loggerhead. The other main way to tell these two apart is the loggerhead doesn’t leave a tail mark whereas the hawksbill tail leaves a squiggly line in the middle of its track. The flatback turtle rarely nests on the Ningaloo Coast but can move its front flippers either simultaneously or one at a time adding to the confusion of track identification.

Overhead view of two turtle tracks on the sand, green turtle tracks on the left and loggerhead on the right showing the differences described in the text. A few ghost crab holes are scattered in the frame too
Green track on the left and loggerhead on the right…racing up the beach maybe?

The next day we met at the depot at 5.30am. Backpacks of gear were passed out, we were given training notepads and assigned to cars. The sun came up fully as we took the long road out to the cape. Our trainer patiently led us along Five Mile Beach, stopping at every turtle track to quiz us on what species had made it, the direction it was travelling (emerge or return) and if a nest had been made. Following a discussion we all entered the data on our tablets then moved on down the beach, drawing a line across the track and between the nest and secondary body pit so the next day’s tracker would not double count. We only saw green turtle tracks that day. Our trainer also pointed out tracks of other species, the t-shaped rabbit patterns were everywhere, so were the dotted ghost grab marks. Bird tracks were not as common but some were quite large, making you look twice in case it was a fox. Pink sea urchin tests as large as my hand were scattered along the tideline, some crushed, others still in perfect condition. All too soon the track training was over and we headed back to the office.

A landscape view of the beach with two turtle tracks, one emerging and the other returning up the beach. The blue water is in the distance and a few clouds are scattered across the sky

That night we met at Hunters beach to watch the local vet release a turtle. The turtle was called Rosie, she’d come in with float syndrome. This is where bacteria or a viral infection develops in a turtle’s gut, releasing gases that stop the turtle from being able to control its buoyancy. The turtle floats at the surface and can’t feed, quickly losing condition and growing a covering of barnacles. The vet takes in turtles like this and with many helping hands attempts to return them to full health. Rosie was the ninth turtle released and seemed very happy to be heading back out to sea.

A turtle is about to enter the sea at sunset, she's right next to the white foamy wash
Rosie heading out

After another training session we went snorkeling at Lakeside. On arriving at the beach you walk half a kilometre until you come to two yellow poles sticking out of the dunes. These correspond to a buoy in the water. Further up the beach is another set of poles, the area enclosed by these markers is the sanctuary zone where the snorkel is. The current was ripping past so we walked past the first poles, complete with osprey perched on top. Jumping in there was a long swim out to the buoy. My heart sank along the way. In every direction as far as I could see the sand was covered in brown algae. Where was the reef? We fought the current, kicking furiously until we reached the buoy then drifted across the sanctuary zone. Nothing. Disappointed we started swimming back to shore and finally found the coral bommies. A green turtle had wedged itself between the coral and another rock to take a break from the rushing current. A white and mottled brown octopus clung to the coral. Kicking hard I could dive closer. It didn’t like that, instantly turning an angry shade of red. Groups of blue green chromis were scattered like confetti above the branching coral and a large, rainbow coloured parrotfish loudly chomped algae off coral as I swam past. This was an incredible diversion from our training.

three fish swim close to the camera with an aqua blue background
A whole reef of fish to my left…and I sit in the shallows with these silver guys instead

I decided to clean my office, there was a layer of red dust on everything. Two taxidermied turtles, a stuffed fox, seagull and numerous turtle skulls and bones are piled around the room. Tubs of old shirts take up space while the shelves are filled with folders of paper, records from monitoring since the program began in 2002. After wiping the dust off everything and rearranging all the critters and tubs the office seemed a lot larger. I even managed to tuck the blue, shell-shaped kiddies pool into a back corner. I line up the hatchlings preserved in jars on a shelf above my computer. Two are barely swimming in preserving liquid, one is completely high and dry. I think they’ll make nice office companions along with the adult taxidermied turtles sitting on the desk behind me, ready to greet people as soon as they walk through the door. I wonder if they’ll get names after two months alone in this room with me.

We were taken out to Bungelup to become familiar with the remote camp we would stay at during the program. The camp is very basic, an awning covers the dining table which sits outside two rooms, one for storage the other a washroom. This area is one of the most significant mainland loggerhead turtle rookeries in the Eastern Indian Ocean basin. Walking along the beach to hammer in the totem signs we saw at least 15 turtles close to shore. They were mostly greens, very skittish, roughly 20 years old based on their salad bowl size. When they took a breath and saw us on the beach they took off as fast as possible. We saw plenty of loggerhead tracks and nests. Walking back along the beach our trainer pointed out a shark in the shallows. “There’s no black tip on its fin, it might be a nervous shark” she stated. “A what?” I asked disbelieving. “It’s a type of shark we get here that likes to swim close to shore”. On the drive back to town I had to check if she was making it up, to go with the drop bears and hoop snakes but no, sure enough there is a nervous shark.

Another 5.30am start for our assessment day. The pattern was generally like our training where we walked along the high tide mark, following return tracks and trying to determine if a nest had been made. Along the way our assessor drew dingo tracks and a turtle in the sand to practice other scenarios then at the end had us describe the differences in tracks for each species. We all finished the morning as fully fledged turtle trackers!

a shark fin and tail poke above the water
Can anyone else hear the Jaws theme…?

Road Tripping: Perth to Exmouth – Part 2

Kalbarri to Exmouth

The next day was free to explore Kalbarri National Park. The park is huge, it took us a half hour drive from town to reach the first walk called Nature’s Window. Yellow tailed black cockatoos were eating banksia seeds in the trees on the side of the road. When we tried to approach closer on foot they flew off, making their melancholy echoing call. We were one of the first cars in the carpark, it was only 7am but we were here early to beat the heat. Heading downhill the concrete path soon turned to rock as we followed the rim of a gorge. To our left you could see over the cliffs to the u-shaped bend of the Murchison River. The river far below us traced its way along the bottom of the gorge. Tiny black dots moved around on the sand. Putting my camera to my eye and zooming my telephoto as far as it could go, I found they were goats drinking at the water’s edge.

Pools of water sitting on yellow sand at the bottom of Murchison gorge, a layered red sedimentary wall.
Murchison Gorge in Kalbarri National Park
A blue green river winding through a red walled gorge
An undercut rock in the Murchison River

Following the path around a rock wall, using natural stepping stones carved out of it by wind and water we came to Nature’s Window. The window itself is a sedimentary arch with a hole in the middle of it through which you can see the gorge and the river. There is a small platform of rock on one side where other tourists were standing taking photos of each other. We walked around them and continued down the rock and along the path. We were on the track for the Murchison Gorge loop walk which takes 3-4 hours and loops down into the gorge, along the river and back up. As we are walking along the gorge rim, we have to be mindful of where we step, to either side is an incredible view but also a long drop. We reach a sign that tells us if we haven’t made it to this point before 7.30am do not attempt the Loop walk. We had no plans to spend that long out in the heat, already carrying 2 litres of water each for our short stroll. In the gorge it can be 10 degrees hotter than on the rim, where it was already climbing towards 40 degrees by 9am.

We walked a little further and found a shaded spot to eat our snack. Wrens teased us from nearby pushes with their high-pitched squeaks but we couldn’t spot them. A kestrel soared gracefully overhead, landing on a nearby rock outcrop. From its landing spot it could sit in the shade and look out over the entire gorge.

A small kestrel perched on the edge of a red gorge wall
A Nankeen Kestrel perched on the edge of the Murchison Gorge

I wonder what it thinks of the view? Probably couldn’t care less as it sees it every day! We were impressed though, the river below was a deep green, contrasting with the yellow sand of the riverbed and the orange rocks that form the sides of the gorge. Low green scrub was dotted through the sand, as were the tracks of animals that come in for a drink. From our height we could only make out the three toed emu prints.

Two sets of footprints on yellow sand
Goats and emu tracks

The bushes continue to grow in the rocky gorge country but don’t give much shade giving an empty feeling to the place. We were getting very hot and head back to the car, on our way into the carpark we pass by the ‘intrepid adventurers’ heading to natures window for a photo. Hats and other sun protection seemed like an optional afterthought for most of this group, most carried only their phones for that precious selfie, but no water. Same it was now 48 degrees in the shade. Their driver was finishing off a quick cigarette then hurried after them, presumably to round them up and drive on to the next photo opportunity.

A single long gum tree on the edge of the green Murchison river
Looks so clear and inviting, shame its such a long walk down to the water

We had a quiet afternoon to ourselves, checking out a few more lookouts but it was too hot to brave anymore walks. We thought we’d check out a snorkelling spot but after driving back to town realised a strong wind had picked up. Ever hopeful we headed to the beach to find it was so exposed the wind howling even stronger, and it was low tide so the rockpool snorkelling site the tourist information board recommended had barely any water covering the sharp rocks. Oh well, back in the air conditioning we rested and packed to continue our journey.

As we drove away from Kalbarri early the next day falcons and eagles hovered above the road as if to wish us farewell. Our next stop was a place called shell beach. As a shell lover I was very excited to see a beach completely made of shells. On the drive we’d had glimpses of turquoise blue ocean and were looking forward to a mid-morning swim to cool down. We couldn’t have been more disappointed! As we parked the car the intrepid bus drove off, they were finally ahead of us, a worrying sign. The first interpretive sign stated the water was hypersaline so if you went swimming you would come out with a layer of salt on your skin. No thanks. At least there was still a beach full of shells, I thought to myself. Reaching the beach, I first thought we’d come to the wrong place. It was super windy and the ground was white, the surface was piled into waves from the wind so heading towards the ocean meant walking up and down small slopes. Bending down I found we were in the right place; the shells were there. But they were tiny! The pipi shaped Fragum Cockle shells were the size of my fingernail if I was lucky to find a large looking one. Well that’s not what I imagined! After a few photos we headed back to the carpark, the wind blowing us back the whole way and whipping dust across our legs.

The millions of white fragum cockle shells
It truly is a beach of shells

Driving on along the unchanging road we reached our next stop, the Hamelin Pool stromatolites. The stromatolites may be the oldest living organism but boy they aren’t much to look at! After walking down the beach we could see an exposed area from the low tide which looked like a field of rocks. We struck unlucky again, learning you couldn’t swim near the stromatolites, there was just a short boardwalk that took you on a loop out to see them. Even on the furthest point seaward the stromatolites below us were barely in ankle deep water. And oh the flies! We still spent the best part of an hour having a look and appreciating the ancient structures below us. Small fish swam from the shade of one stromatolite to another then stopped still. Under the boardwalk swallows flew when we walked over top, moving to another area in the shade. The area looked empty as all signs of life (apart from the stromatolites) sought shelter from the harsh midday sun.

Black stromatolite pillars surrounded by blue water
The Hamelin Pool stromatolites, formed from mats of bacteria slowly constructing self supporting pillars

Our stop that night was at Carnarvon, after arriving late we cooked up pasta and made an impressive salad, we’d been missing vegies on this roadtrip! When it was time for bed I became fascinated with the bedside lamps which turned on and off if you lightly tapped the base with a fingertip. Maybe I’d spent too long in the sun.

The next day we were very excited to reach Coral Bay and spend some time in the water. We’d read about a nursery area for reef sharks at skeleton beach so headed there first. To get there you have to park the car then walk for thirty minutes along the beach. Trudging in the sand, the sun beating down and heading against the wind our spirits were still up to see sharks. We reached the point we’d aimed for and headed into the water to find…nothing. The odd bit of algae covered coral, barely a fish and definitely no sharks. We investigated thoroughly, but found nothing. There was hardly any coral to speak of so we couldn’t work out why this place had been called Coral Bay either. Defeated we stopped by the bakery for a snack and to re-plan.

The other snorkelling spot was the bay itself (Bill’s bay) so we headed there, covered in a new layer of sunscreen. The bay was protected from the wind and very still. An arc of white sand curved around to meet the turquoise water, below it we could see dark shapes. Diving in we found the reef at last! As far as you could see, then once you’d swum there and looked even further – was coral. It covered the ocean floor like a carpet, you couldn’t see any sandy patches. It was like a layered garden with branching coral growing over horizontal plate corals and around large boulder like Porites coral that grow only a centimetre or less per year and would be hundreds of years old. Now we understood why this place got its name. There was about half a metre of water between us and the coral carpet below. It was mostly brown in colour with the occasional fluoro blue staghorn coral breaking up the single colour palette. There were very few reef fish living among the coral, the odd school of blue green Chromis here and there and a wrasse occasionally. We soon had our fill of looking at coral and headed on to our final destination – Exmouth.

First impressions of Exmouth were typical of every town we’d recently been in. Very hot, one main street and barely any trees with only low bushes on the roadside. Similar to most other places the first two options we tried for dinner were closed, which isn’t surprising as this is the quiet season when no whalesharks and their accompanying tourists are around. Up early on our second last day we heard short beaked corellas calling as we drove towards Cape Range National Park. A dingo slunk along the side of the road.

a red dust path down the side of a grey walled gorge
Mandu Mandu Gorge, looking back over the scramble we’d just descended

Over 40 kilometres in we came to our first stop, Mandu Mandu gorge walk. The trail loops along the top of a gorge with views to the ocean, then cuts back through the dry creek bed. We saw our first black-flanked rock wallaby, a bit mummified, and dead in the middle of the path in the baking sun. All was going well heading uphill but as a grade four walk it was so incredibly steep going downhill I was terrified. I ended up scooting on my bum for most of it, which was made even more embarrassing when a pair of French girls with no water or backpacks came from the opposite direction.

A male figure standing at the top of a grey wall of rock
Mitch at the top of on side of Mandu Mandu Gorge

“How is the trail?” They asked,

“A bit steep and slippery in places” Mitch replied.

They were off on their way again. We didn’t tell them about the decomposing wallaby, best save that as a surprise.

A male figure picking his way down the path of a gorge wall
Making our way down

My legs were shaking and I was swearing off ever doing this walk again by the time we’d reached halfway. Hitting the creek bed the heat washed over us but luckily the breeze returned occasionally. Walking over the large white pebbles was tough, every second step the whole ground would move beneath your foot. Halfway along the creek bed Mitch pointed up at the cliffs towering above us. In the shade, on a ledge less than a metre wide sat a black-flanked rock wallaby. There was no clear way for it to get up there but in the only cool place it sat, sleeping. It blinked blearily at us once as we passed fifteen metres below it then went back to its slumber. Further on we made like the wallaby and found a shady overhang to eat our snacks.

A grey and black wallaby resting in the shade of an orange and red gorge wall
A dozing black flanked wallaby

Next stop, Ningaloo Reef. Turquoise Bay drift snorkel was where we ended up. Stepping over hot sand full of coral pieces we made our way up the beach. Into the water where there was…nothing. Just sand for the first twenty metres or so. It was quite stirred up so you had the feeling of needing to clean your glasses the entire time. Unlike coral bay there was no mass of coral, it was dotted everywhere in patches and small bommies. There were many more reef fish though which prompted me to buy a book and work out what they were at the visitor centre later that day. We disturbed a stingray feeding on the bottom, Mitch spotted another octopus tucked into a coral head. I still have no idea how he sees something so camouflaged.

Getting out we made a few stops on the long drive back, we had to slow down for emus and completely stop for Bustards along the road. The visitors centre was full of skulls, taxidermy specimen’s sea urchin tests and birds’ nests complete with eggs. It did give me a strong idea of how many animal species were in the area, you definitely couldn’t tell if there was much alive by being outside! We ended up back at the Potshot Hotel restaurant for dinner, just in time for cheap parmy night. We didn’t make the same mistake as last night in sitting outside with the flies, instead choosing a table in the dark, cool of inside.

Our last day together was slow, we had a long breakfast at a vegetarian & vegan café that seemed to attract everyone with a child under three. Dropping Mitch off and finally walking out of the airport I crumbled a little inside, this was our first time apart in over a year and a half. Would I survive in Exmouth on my own? Who would open jars for me? And more importantly could I even do this? 

To be continued…

Small, Blue and Fast

Science in the field: Superb Fairy Wrens

It was an overcast morning when we walked into Campbell Park, kangaroos stared disinterestedly at us while munching grass. The researcher we had just met had taken her boots off and was standing in calf deep cold water reaching into a blackberry bush. With feet sinking into the mud, arm buried among the thorns, Claire carefully reached into a superb fairy-wren nest. She soon emerged victorious with three tiny wren eggs in her hand. Cautiously stepping out of the cold mud Claire went off to measure the eggs. Oh the glamour of research!

Claire, the researcher, standing in calf deep mud and water reaching head and shoulders into a dead brown and tan blackberry bush to collect wren eggs
Isn’t research glamorous

Claire Taylor is in the 3rd year of her PhD studies at the Australian National University. She is looking at factors that influence maternal investment within superb fairy-wrens. So far this has involved a lot of field work, with 32 breeding pairs of wrens being monitored in this field season alone. The season runs from September to February, although this can be cut short if there is a week of hot weather early in the new year.

“We haven’t studied it,” said Claire, “but it could be parents aren’t able to maintain their body condition or there’s a short supply of insects during hot conditions, its an interesting observation we’ve seen over the 20 years of field work.”

The heat, especially those 40-degree days, can slightly speed up the incubation process, though not by more than a day. All of this potentially has interesting implications as the climate continues to undergo change. A greater percentage of hot days is predicted. This could impact breeding and incubation, though this isn’t part of Claire’s work currently.

Claire spends a decent chunk of every day walking around Campbell Park in all weather conditions, looking for new nests, checking eggs and feeding birds as part of a food supplementation experiment.

Fairy-wren nests suffer high levels of predation from other birds and snakes, that snack on eggs or chicks. While these nests are brilliantly camouflaged and hidden in blackberry bushes, using the same nest after a predation event isn’t an ideal fix. This means the wrens will choose a new spot to rebuild the nest and lay another clutch of eggs. Over the season they can have up to 8 breeding attempts each with up to four eggs. And with a 1.5 gram egg from a nine gram bird that’s a significant amount of effort going into producing offspring consistently in one season. I had no idea breeding for these tiny birds was so difficult!

“There was one bird”, Claire said, “who spent eight years brooding clutches, but through all those breeding seasons only raised one set of chicks to adulthood, that was in 2018”.

These little birds really are determined not to fail!

A hand holding the white egg with red speckles of a superb fairy wren as its removed from its nest in a thorny blackberry bush as part of an ANU research program.
Not only are the eggs tiny, wrens also love blackberry to nest in… apparently cruelty to researchers is ok

“Like a lot of animals that invest time into multiple breeding events in a season, they end up with very high predation rates. Somewhere in the order of 66% of nests for wrens” Claire told us as we followed her deeper into Campbell Park.“The danger zone is the first year, after that survivorship increases as the birds become part of the population”.

Superb fairy-wrens are also a victim of the Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo, which features in Claire’s research. The adult cuckoo is twice as large as a fairy-wren and is a brood parasite. This means it will lay its egg in the wren’s nest. The cuckoo chick hatches and pushes the wren chicks or eggs out of the nest so it can receive all the food from the parent wrens.

“The interesting part is the cuckoo chick usually spends its first two days of life busily shoving an egg only just smaller than itself out of the nest before the wren hatches” said Claire.

Three white wren eggs with red speckles being kept warm in a hand before they are measured. A large feather that's used as bedding material in wren nests is resting between two of the tiny eggs.
Wren eggs have a distinctive red speckled ring on the blunt end

When monitoring the nests, Claire checks regularly to see if any eggs have been laid. To do this she first checks the area for predators, like kookaburras, currawongs or magpies. If these are nearby, she waits for them to move away or if they’re taking their time, walks towards them so they fly off. Needless to say, some of these predators prefer to hop from fence post to fence post rather than move on straight away. Once the coast is clear, Claire can stick her hand among the blackberry thorns into the nest. There were 3 eggs in each of the nests we checked. They are white with reddish brown spots, typically forming a halo around the wider end of the egg. It’s hard to convey how delicate they are, weighing only 1.5 grams and measuring roughly 17 millimeters long, I’m definitely too clumsy to ever hold one! Claire carefully weighs each egg, measures them using calipers and takes a photograph of the clutch. While each egg takes its turn, an assistant with warm hands carefully holds the others, this is another job not suited to me with my reptile-like body temperature but was perfect for Mitch.

A white wren egg with red speckles cradled in a hand while a pair of white calipers is used to measure its length.

While walking to the next nest Claire told us how the wrens actually make their tiny nests;

“First, they collect spider web and shape it into a donut-like ring. Next, they collect sticks and twigs to form the nest structure around the ring, before making the nest cosy by lining the inside floor with crimson rosella belly feathers or kangaroo fur”.

The nests blend so well into the blackberry bushes that finding them is a skill in itself. Once, Claire was lucky enough to see a wren flying into a bush with a stick in its beak, this led her straight to the nest under construction. It also looked quite comical to see a small bird carrying such a large twig.

The final nests just had to be checked to determine if any eggs had been laid yet. We went off track a little and through the bush on a hilly walk. The clouds were finally starting to disperse and the sun was struggling to shine through. At the last nest we came across a shingleback lizard sunning itself on the ground nearby, but no eggs.

Back at the carpark Claire showed us her nest book. It contained carefully recorded details for each nesting pair, including the band colours for each bird and updates on each date detailing things like nest building progress or the age of eggs.

“It started extremely detailed, noting location of the pairs and how to find the nest” Claire told us, “it’s become more of a shorthand now I know where I’m finally going”.

We’re hoping to get out another day with Claire and, fingers crossed, see some wren chicks!

A green chicken wire mesh cage over a supplementary feeding tray. A male Superb fairy wren with his bright blue cheeks, back and tail sits on a blackberry branch inside the exclusion cage.
Claire’s research includes supplementary feeding experiments aimed at understanding how food availability impacts offspring

P.S.

…A month later we got the chance to go out again. Claire emailed Friday night,

“I’ll be banding a clutch of chicks tomorrow and was wondering if you had a spare hour in the morning to come out?”

Of course, who would knock back an opportunity to see wren chicks!

So, Saturday morning we met at 7am and headed off to the nest. Passing a dried out dam, we reached the right blackberry bush and Claire stopped a short distance away to prepare. She pulled out a plastic container full of tiny, different coloured metal pieces, a scientific beading kit?

“All the wrens in the project have a numbered silver band and two coloured bands so I can identify the birds and easily tell who is from which clutch” Claire explained.

Researcher Claire in a brown Akubra hat and purple top carefully preparing to add a leg band to a superb fairy wren chick.
Preparing to band a tiny chick is delicate work

“I’m an R class bander which means I can band the superb fair-wrens without supervision, over the past few years I’ve banded almost 300 wrens”.

Sticking her arm among the thorns of a blackberry bush Claire, reached into a well concealed nest. She pulled out a small black pin feathered chick. Two other eggs were inside, but those probably wouldn’t hatch now. An adult male wren scurried around in the bush.

“He’s doing a rodent-run to draw us away from the nest” Claire said.

A small wren chick resting inside a egg cup shaped weighing bowl about to be placed onto a micro balance scale.
A soft cushion before being gently eased into the micro-balance for weighing

Back at the banding station Claire weighed the tiny bird, carefully settling it onto a cotton wool covered bowl to place it into the scale. She used callipers to get a tarsus measurement (the birds leg between the knee joint and ankle, where the foot begins). This will compare the size of the chicks in different experimental treatments as the weight may change depending on how recently the chick was fed. Next the little chick was blinged up, the silver numbered tag was put on its left leg, to differentiate it from the banded wrens at the Australian National Botanic Gardens which all had this tag on their right legs. The coloured tags given to this little one were green-mauve and red-blue, which gives the wren its name gmRB.

A wren chick with tiny black pin feathers  after the metal band has been placed onto its left leg.
Metal band in place

During the whole process the little chick looked very relaxed, I thought banding would be difficult but the little one was very cooperative and stayed still. There was a lot of chirping, its surprising how much noise can come from such a small animal.

“The chick in this nest is 7 days old, it’s got its pin feathers already and is just starting to get some fluff”.

A wren chick staring up at the camera as a green and purple plastic band is added to its right leg.
It almost doesn’t look impressed

Then Claire offered me the chance to hold the baby! I couldn’t get over how small it was, the little bird was so warm in my hand. It’s amazing to think if I come back in a few months this little wren might survive the odds and be flying around the park. Moments like these really put me into a researchers shoes and I can begin to understand the amazing things they get to do and see which so many people never will. Claire reclaimed the baby and popped it back in the nest, definitely the highlight of our day!

A wren chick with black and grey pin feathers held in two hands.
So very cute with so much growing to do yet

Over the next few months Claire will be back out every day, checking nests and continuing with the feeding experiment. We’re lucky to have joined her for part of the amazing work she’s doing and see what other people get up to in their day job. Looking forward to hearing the findings of her research as it unfolds.

If your enjoying our science stories why not read about monitoring eastern quolls at mulligans flat or the captive breeding of new holland mice.

Don’t forget to like and follow us to keep reading about the fascinating research occurring in Australia.

Road Tripping: Perth to Exmouth

Western Australia Adventure Part 1

We left Canberra in the dark on a chilly morning, arriving in Perth 6 hours later in jeans and jackets. That was the first mistake. Perth was experiencing a heatwave, four consecutive days over 35 degrees, the second time this has ever happened in November. Our taxi driver seemed to be economising and preferred to have the windows down instead of turning on the aircon for the half hour drive out of the airport. Day dreaming about shorts and cold drinks was practically mandatory.

The rear portion of the Batavia ship wreck sitting on a plinth of bricks it was carrying as ballast.
The Batavia at rest

After picking up the rental car we were off exploring Fremantle. We stumbled on the WA Shipwrecks Museum and had to go inside. Silver coins and tales of destruction abounded, we also got to see part of the Batavia which wrecked as it ran aground on reefs off the Abrolhos islands in 1629. If you haven’t heard of this ship Peter Fitzsimmons has written a brilliant book, telling the tragic story of mutiny and murder following the wreck. It’s hard to fathom, but is backed up by journals form the captain, and even the chief mutineer Jeronimus Cornelisz. It’s a tale filled with death, destruction, hardship and evil. The museum speaks to the harsh coastline on this side of the country. That Jeronimus still journaled his actions and justified every outcome as just and needed is a fascinating thought.

Treasures, shipments and salvage from multiple wrecks fill the museum. Each with a story of loss and all holding secrets that were slowly uncovered through careful examination and conservation.

A pile or silver coins pulled from shipwrecks on WAs coast, including one with the head of a monarch and its date of stamping clearly visible.
I’m sure they wouldn’t miss one or two of these…

Heading back out into the heat we had our choice of fish and chip shops along the waterfront. We made the mistake of choosing one with an aquarium tank inside, a discovery made well after we’d ordered. It was brimming with large snapper and sharks all wedged into a 50cm wide rectangle that stretched down the length of the floor space. This is always a sad sight, made more so by the group of school children that crowded around to ‘ohh’ and ‘ahh’ at the trapped creatures.

The next morning, we were set to go to Rottnest Island, but missed our ferry by moments. Our run from the car over to the marina was sound tracked by horn blasts as our boat left the dock. Luckily, we were moved to the next one, and passed the hour and a half wait by drinking juices in the shade. The Island was named by Dutch traders, who mistook the resident marsupial quokkas for rats naming it in Dutch to a very literal translation of Rat’s Nest Island. Around 10,000 of the small, happy looking marsupials live on the island. The strange half hop and run they move with makes them an easy if slightly large animal to confuse with a rat. We can only guess at how the population fared as a source of food for hungry sailors.

A turquoise and aqua coloured ocean bay on the southern edge of Rottnest Island WA, fringed by cliffs, green scrub bush and white sand.
Our unnamed cove

Once at the island we picked up bikes and headed off. Our plan was to cycle to the end of the island and choose somewhere to snorkel on the way back. Ten minutes in we saw our first quokka but it already had a lady shoving a phone in its face so we pedalled on. It was clearly very curious stretching forward to sniff at the outstretched phone, but swiftly lost interest as it decided Samsung wasn’t quite the same as leaves.

Forty minutes later we were only about halfway, it was much hillier than Google Maps lead us to believe. It was hot, the flies were relentless and the incredible aqua colour on our left beckoned. The asphalt stretching in front of us definitely didn’t. We took a quick left onto an offshoot, parked our bikes at a headland overlooking Mary Cove and scurried down a scarcely used trail. Taking a sand track down along the cliff edge skirting precarious undercut sandstone we arrived at the beach in a unnamed bay west of Mary Cove. We had it all to ourselves. Dumping our bags in the only shade of an overhanging rock we quickly darted into the water. We were shocked to feel how cold the water was, almost painfully cutting through our overheated skin.

A turquoise and aqua coloured ocean bay on the southern edge of Rottnest Island WA, fringed by cliffs, green scrub bush and white sand. A male figure is walking along a white sand track above the bay.

Diving under I got my first glimpse of an Indian Ocean temperate reef. Seaweed covered rocks were littered across the sand, some forming larger bommies. Pink branching coral grew sparsely from the larger rocks. Silver fish darted everywhere, with larger grunter lazily circling.

Pink branching coral scattered amongst green and yellow algae.
Macro algae and coral, seems strange to see together

After an hour we headed out to have lunch. The problem was something else had decided it was a perfect time for a snack too. Two large skinks had dragged themselves onto my backpack filling the space between the bag and it’s backplate. They must have followed the smell of our ham and salad rolls! Shooing them away I retreated to eat lunch while the skinks kept watch from the shade. Every now and then they’d slink a little closer, eyes fixed on our rolls. Warily we headed back into the water, unsure if the backpacks were safe from intruders.

A snorkeler watching a squid as it flashes brown and yellow bands.
Friendly neighbourhood squid

We came across an octopus in its garden of shells in the sand and a small orange nudibranch slowly working his way up a boulder to a small patch of encrusting sponge. While waiting for Mitch to take a photo I noticed a very small silver flash circling his legs. He’d picked up an incredibly small juvenile tuna, who’d obviously decided this large slow moving creature was the perfect thing to shelter under.

We cycled faster on the way back, less distracted by panoramic views of cliffs against aqua and deep blue ocean and pushed in places along the road by the strong wind. We stopped once when Mitch saw a quokka with a joey trailing behind it, dart into the bushes on the edge of the road. Nestled in the shade were a few skittish quokkas that moved quickly away as they heard us approach.

A cormorant sitting on a rock surrounded by water, wings raised about to take flight.
Maybe not the sneakiest of photographers… definitely spotted by the cormorant

We stopped for another snorkel at Little Salmon Bay. Tourists lounged on the sand and took photos of each other posing, ignoring the beckoning water and outcrops of rock jutting upwards. We jumped in and saw a squid right away, it flashed waves of brown and white across its mantle before quickly jetting away over the weed. Swimming out to a rock I was within centimetres of a cormorant as it sunned itself on the rock poking out of the water above me. I drifted too close, scaring it off its perch.

Back in town we finally found the quokkas in numbers the island was known for. These town quokkas were very different to the wild ones we’d seen. They were poking around for scraps, dozing next to the road or staring with their happy smiles up at people as they snacked in the square. We watched tourists go from one quokka to the next taking photos and selfies of the animals which didn’t seem to care anymore. It somehow wasn’t as exciting as the wild skittish animals we knew were hidden further away from the tourist centre. We wandered down the jetty, boarding our ferry to be shipped back to the mainland.

Hundreds of natural yellow rock pillars, framed by white sand dunes in the background and a crystal clear blue sky.
Yellow desert, white dunes and clear blue sky

Our first stop out of Perth was the Pinnacles desert park in Nambung National Park. Following a very short detour off the highway and even shorter trek from the carpark you find yourself in a yellow sand desert. Thousands of limestone rock pillars are dotted randomly around you, stretching out to the horizon. We saw tourists walk to the nearest rock, pose for a photo in little more than running gear then head back to the car. Definitely not why we’d come. We set off away from the loop road that winds among the rocks. Out where there were less human footprints. We saw animal tracks abound in the sand, perenties (goannas), red kangaroos, echidnas and two footed marsupials we couldn’t recognise. It was about 38 degrees, so after an hour in full sun under one of the clearest, bluest skies we’ve seen, we headed back to the air con. Rewarded for stepping away from the well-trodden path.

A close up of a brown limestone pillar with hundreds more visible in the background scattered amongst the yellow desert sand.
One of the thousands of limestone pinnacles

A large white tour bus pulled out of the carpark in front of us, ‘intrepid adventures’ it claimed on the back. Little did we know this bus would remain a constant feature of our road trip. Continuing our drive, the road never really changed. There aren’t really large trees in Western Australia along the coastal route. Low shrubs line the highway which makes way to sand or red dirt depending on how far north you are. Eagles and kestrels soar over the road on updrafts or sit by the side when it is early morning and still too cool. Towns seem to appear out of the heat haze, sometimes the only sign of civilization is the mobile reception towers that hover above the road cut by the heat shimmer.

A stone block remnant building form the Lynton convict depot.

Our next stop was at a convict ruin on the side of the road. It was called the Lynton Convict Depot. We hadn’t expected any convict history in WA, only knowing the stories of Tasmania from our recent travels there. No other cars pulled off, leaving the place to us. We wandered alone among the three buildings, looking at the graffiti carved into the stone, and wondering if it was an owl or a falcon that roosted in the main building, with feathers and droppings lining the floor at the darker end. There were carved dates from 1930 but the ruins themselves were much older. Obviously, everyone for a very long time has wanted to simply mark the fact they were here.

The inside walls of the Lynton convict depot lockup. Render is crumbling of of the stone block walls. were the renders left people have carved names and dates into the wall from as early as 1930.
So many carved names and dates
The outside of the Lynton convict depot lockup with piles of broken stone blocks in the foreground. the remains of the lockup sit under a cloudy blue sky.

Onwards, I missed the turnoff and we came across Hutt Lagoon by mistake, fortunate really as it’s what we were aiming for. This lake is pink, due to the amount of algae growing in it. Apparently, after rain it turns pinker as the algae is disturbed and flushed around. Not that you could tell, as there were no interpretive signs, just a lookout where the tour bus we kept running into had parked, unloading its ‘adventurers’ for a selfie in front of the pink, salty water.

The pink water and salt of Hut Lagoon. A small rock pokes out form the water encrusted in salt.
Pink and salty, probably not the best for swimming

Back on the right road we made it to Kalbarri where we were set to stay for two nights. In the soon-to-be-typical Western Australian style this remote town was full of restaurants on its main street, yet only the fish and chip shop and the tavern were open for dinner.

To be continued…

A white tailed black cockatoo eating a Banksia cone while string in the same bush.
RWARK!