Underwater encounters – shallow water secrets

I’d like to share a little secret. One of my favourite encounters occurred in water that didn’t even reach my knees. Let me explain. I was on holiday last year at Lissenung Island, a speck of paradise to the north of mainland Papua New Guinea. Every day we’d hop on a boat and head to dive sites, speeding through mangrove lined shallows to get to coral walls that dropped off into deep water. Now don’t get me wrong, these sites were amazing. Fish swarm the walls in constant, colourful motion. Turning around you’re faced with an expanse of deep blue ocean. Also alive, with schools of large silver trevally that shimmer past. Occasionally a turtle lazily flapped by. Hanging in mid water staring into the abyss you could watch a reef shark curiously circle above divers staring obliviously at the coral wall.

Between dives at sites like this the crew would take us to sheltered spots for the dive interval. This gives us an hour topside to let the nitrogen levels in our blood drop so we could stay down longer on the next dive. On one of these breaks the boys took us to a sandbar. I munched on fresh coconut and soaked up the tropical sun while staring absently at the green mangroves. Someone brought me back to reality saying, “I think there’s a clownfish next to the boat”. The dive snacks were forgotten. We donned our masks and slipped over the side to float in the shallows. The ocean was as warm as bath water, like those shallow rockpools you come across that have been soaking in all the sun’s heat. Beneath the surface seagrasses waved lazily. Small coral patches and anemones littered the sand.

In every crevice there was something alive, a crab darted into a crack in the coral. Small yellow fish schooled amongst the seagrass. But the clownfish were amazing. In such shallow water we saw three different types. My favourite was the Clown Anemonefish (Amphiprion percula). It was my first time seeing these cuties, shaped like a typical Disney Nemo but with more black colouring. A cool thing about these clownfish, the amount of black pigmentation changes depending on which species of anemone they live with. You see, anemones are happy to host lots of different anemonefish species. Clown Anemonefish are picky, they’re only happy to call three anemone species home. If a Clown Anemonefish doesn’t find a magnificent, gigantic or leathery sea anemone to live in it will perish quickly. This relationship is called a symbiosis. The fish are protected from predators by the anemone’s stinging tentacles (like living in a jellyfish). In return the fish bring snacks to bed, dropping food offerings into their anemone host in return for this safe haven.

“Come look at this!” Robert, one of the crew called us into even shallower water. He pointed at a brownish blob well camouflaged in the sand. “Devil scorpionfish, very dangerous, don’t step on him” Robert warned. We all peered at the scraggily brown blob that blended perfectly with its sandy surroundings. This ambush predator waits for a meal to come to it. While seemingly lazy, they speedily lunge and inhale smaller fish when they swim too close. When feeling threatened Devil Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis diabolus) lifts the venomous spines along their back, revealing why it is one of the world’s most venomous fish. If you step on a scorpionfish you can be in severe pain for up to 12 hours. Luckily it can be treated with hot water, which can be found even in the most remote locations. Naturally my dive buddy and macro enthusiast boyfriend, Mitch, had to get a shot. We all laughed at him lying in the shallows.

With so much to see the dive interval was over before we knew it. The dive crew grinned as we suggested we do the next dive at the sand bar. A little reluctantly we all hopped back on the boat to go to the next ‘real’ dive site. With so much to see in shallow water, I’d learnt to check out any puddle, rockpool or barely flowing river I came across from then on. Let me be the first to tell you, you don’t need much water to have a cool aquatic encounter!

Road tripping – South West WA: Part 2

We found an unexpected aspect to tourism in West Australia. For every couple of natural places free to explore, there is one human made heritage feature locked away. We first encountered this at Cape Naturaliste National Park. This sits on a headland jutting into the Indian Ocean a half hour drive west of Busselton. On the headland walking trails meander through the coastal scrub. One winds down to a whale watching platform which overlooks the calm waters of Geographe Bay, a nursery and rest area for migrating whales. A lighthouse, built 117 years ago still stands twenty metres high, overlooking the bay.

Arriving at Cape Naturaliste we jumped out of the car, keen to stretch our legs and have a closer look at the historic lighthouse. We quickly discovered it would cost $5 each to walk up the path to the base of the lighthouse and decided to give it a miss. We felt disappointed that seeing cultural heritage was going to cost money. We didn’t want to do the tour, or walk into the lighthouse and up its 59 stairs but a fenced building, also separating the lighthouse keeper cottages, kept us out. We chose to explore one of the walking tracks instead, the lighthouse peeked through the scrub at us the whole way. Our track took us to ‘the other side of the moon’. This oddly named area is on the wind exposed western side of the headland. Bushes struggle to gain much height, clinging to the bare rock. It felt like the wind was blowing straight up from Antarctica. The blue ocean stretched into the horizon, meeting only the sky. The next closest land would be Africa, only a short swim really. You feel like you’re on the edge of the Earth here.

Our next stop was Sugarloaf Rock. This unremarkable lump pokes out of the sea. Waves crash endlessly against it, filling the air with sea spray. But this unassuming, wind and salt blasted rock is the southernmost breeding site for red tailed tropic birds. Thirty pairs used to breed on this rock but now only a few scrape out nests and raise a single chick here. I’ve seen these birds at Lady Elliot Island before. They have evolved to live on the wing and spend their lives at sea, only coming ashore to breed. This means they are very clumsy on land. They have two long red tail plumes and a bright red beak, distinguishing them from other seabirds. Sadly, we didn’t see any today, maybe they use the more sheltered side of the rock.

The next day we were back at Cape Naturaliste early in the morning. Spots of rain fell as we peeled ourselves out of the car. We tackled the Bunker Bay walk which winds around the headland. Rocks and tree roots litter the path making every step a chance to twist your ankle. Wrens called teasingly from in the scrub but I never spotted one. Arriving at a lookout we could see across the blue water of Bunker Bay to caves at the top of the cliff face. Stalactites hung from the cave roof, there was no way to get any closer with a sheer drop below us into the sea.

Our next stop was an hour’s drive south, Eagle’s Heritage Raptor Centre. The place was run by a couple who took in injured raptors, owls and tawny frogmouths (which are nightjars, not raptors). Admission fees funded their work so to entice visitors in they held two free-flight raptor shows every day. We were there an hour before the first one and had a good look at all the enclosures. It was a cool, overcast morning so most of the birds were fluffed up. A large wedge tail watched our every move as we entered. Barn owls huddled next to each other, in pairs and threes. Another pen contained five boobooks, two snuggled together at the front. When we approached their heads swivelled to watch us. I’ve never seen so many birds of prey up close. It made me sad to see them in cages. Especially when I read about the powerful owl who was waiting for a mate and kept laying unfertilised eggs on her own every year.

By 11am we seated for the bird show. An older man came out with a long, leather glove on his wrist, perched on top was a barn owl. This was Ivy, he’d known her since she’d been an egg. He gave an interesting talk skipping from owl biology to Australia’s treatment of it’s endemic raptors. We learnt so many incredible facts about barn owls, they:

  • consume 1000 mice per year (that’s 900 more than the average snake)
  • can see in ultraviolet light (tracking prey from sweat or urine trails invisible to us)
  • have incredible hearing because their face feathers funnel sound to their ears which internally point up on one side and down on the other
  • have bristles on their feet, so if prey move to bite their toes they’ll detect it first.

Next in the show three black tailed hawks were released to fly free, being enticed closer with food. Evolved to catch insects on the wing these raptors were so fast they would swoop in, catch the food thrown mid-air and be gone before my autofocus could lock onto them (though we both have some very impressive looking blurs).

We drove on to visit some caves. Very excited, we drove to the first one to find another tourist trap. Entrance to the cave cost over twenty dollars, and was blocked by a shop. We could see a long line of people winding around the shelves of t-shirts and fridge magnets. Only a certain number of people were allowed in at a time, so as one person came out, you received their headset and could go in. Definitely not the kind of experience we thought of when we read about caves you could explore yourself!

We drove further southward towards Cape Leeuwin-Naturaliste. There was another lighthouse there, older than the one at Cape Naturaliste, at 125 years. It is the tallest lighthouse on the Australian mainland reaching 39 metres. With these more impressive stats it wasn’t surprising to find it cost $7.50 to get close to this lighthouse (see bigger is better). Bypassing this we followed part of the Cape to Cape track which wound out of the carpark and onto large smoothed rocks next to the ocean. The Cape to Cape runs from Cape Naturaliste down to Cape Leeuwin, a distance we’d managed in a day by car, but would take a few more on foot to cover its 123km. Walking along the shore we turned onto a path through the scrub and came across an old waterwheel. It had been built in 1895 to pump water up to build the lighthouse and provide water to the lighthouse keepers cottages. The water was being drained from a wetland spring to our right. The spring had been drained so low an electric pump was needed to keep the water wheel supplied after over 100 years of flow. The wheel itself was covered in calcified lime and looked as if it was turning to stone. Green moss grew all over it, hanging in clumps.

Heading back north as the afternoon crept in, we arrived at Ellensbrook, unsure if we would be locked out. You see this historical homestead was closed to visitors the day we arrived. We’d read about a walk starting on the property that led to a cave and Meekadarabee Falls. We were pleasantly surprised to find we could wander in freely, look around the old farmhouse and head up to the trail. We stumbled across the first evidence of residential hydroelectricity in the state built near the house. A failed project by its original owners to deliver power to the farm house. Apparently, they could never quite get the turbine to produce enough power. We then wound our way along a boardwalk, lizards dropped off into the grass as we approached. The scrub changed, thinning out, the path turned to a sandy track. A boardwalk appeared which let us overlook a waterfall in front of a cave. We were the only ones there. Ellensbrook was very peaceful after visiting more tourist heavy places. It was just what we needed!

It was getting late so we headed back, driving to Margaret River for dinner. We’d reserved a table at La Scarpetta Trattoria, an Italian restaurant run out of the heritage listed Bridgefield Guesthouse. The building was originally an old coach house, it was all arching timber curves and stained glass windows. Cushioned bench seats lined the windows overlooking the garden. A mulberry tree drooped over a bench seat outside. Just sitting there was relaxing, there was so much to take in. But the food was also incredible! Starting with arancini dipped in steaming Napoli sauce, we continued with fresh filled pasta and grilled seasonal vegetables. For dessert we tipped over into heaven with caprese al cioccolato and citrus cream filled cannoli. After all this food we needed a brief waddle up the street. What we saw of Margaret River had us very excited for our foodie tour here tomorrow. As the sky darkened we drove home, weary from a day spent outside but very, very content. While it was disappointing that we couldn’t see everything without paying, what we did find by exploring a little further afield and walking mostly unused trails was definitely worth it.

Exploring Ningaloo – week 7

I headed out to Bungelup remote camp for the night, driving through a wind driven sandstorm. Red dust was flying across the road in a cloud and swirling above the ground. It was so windy, rattling past at 35-55kms an hour. It shook the car when I stopped. Arriving at camp the stationed team said they had barely slept the night before. I set up my swag then joined everyone reading, slipping into the very cruisy Bungelup routine. The remote camp has been set up to allow monitoring of the beaches here, which are part of one of the largest loggerhead turtle rookeries in the Eastern Indian Ocean Basin. I was here to brush up on everything I needed to know about running the remote camp before running one in 4 days’ time.

Two camp chairs sit between swags under the sun shade at Bungelup. Books and waterbottles at the ready.
The accomodations, while basic, are immensely relaxing at Bungalup

We made pizza for dinner in the BBQ and played uno, it was too windy to consider anything else. In my swag it was as if someone had left a light on, the moon was shining straight in. I zipped my swag up further. The wind was relentless. The trees and bushes around us shook all night long. My swag wobbled, the wind blew through it making me huddle further into my sleeping bag. I woke at 4am, when we said we might go looking for turtles coming to nest on the high tide. No one else moved. At 5.30 I heard movement and put my jumper on, ready to go monitoring. The tracks had almost been blown away.

Weird sculptures in the sand like a mini city of skyscrapers were left behind from a failed nesting attempt

Even the turtles didn’t want to come out last night. Along five kilometres of beach we only had two nests and one false crawl. Back at camp we had a quick breakfast, packed up and headed home. I hoped the Bungelup trip I would lead in a few days would have better weather.

Photo taken of the camp at night, which sits between the white ute and two casuarina trees that tower overhead. The night sky is blue and littered with little white spots - stars.

Back in town the next day the wind had died down. I went walking from Hunter’s to Mauritius. Along the way I saw a turtle digging a body pit in the side of a sand dune. I watched her for a while, thinking her head was towards the dune because of the direction she was flicking sand. She moved a lot. Her whole shell kind of wobbled side to side then she’d do a flick then another wobble then flick the other flipper. This went on for some time. It was close to 7am but she was shaded by the dune so maybe she didn’t know how late it was. Then her head popped up in the dune at the opposite end to where I thought. She’d been flicking sand over her head with her back flippers. Could turtle’s need a few years to practice what we assume are intuitive skills? This one certainly hadn’t read the how-to-nest manual.

A turtle heaves herself out of a hole she has dug in the side of a dune. Ready for nesting attempt number two.

That afternoon around sunset we all went looking for hatchlings at Five Mile. We walked up the beach then had to stop because a Hawksbill turtle was dragging herself out of the water. It was broad daylight and still quite hot, but off she went. Halfway up to the dunes she positioned herself parallel to the water and began digging a body pit. We crept up behind her when she began scooping out her egg chamber. She alternated using her back flippers to scoop a handful of sand out of the chamber, and dump it next to the hole. Her flippers were so dextrous, it reminded me of someone using their hands to scoop up free cherries at Christmas. She moved over the hole and began laying eggs.

Back view of a hawksbill turtle as she digs her egg chamber. Her flipper is in midair, flicking sand back over her head.
Close up of the rear flippers and shell of a hawksbill turtle. The sand below them is smooth where she has patted it down over her eggs.

We couldn’t see them but her body moved back and forth each time an egg came out. Finally she began covering, patting sand down on the eggs with her back flippers so skillfully. We slipped back as she began to camouflage the nest. This meant she was using her front flippers again to create a drag mark along the beach. The aim of this is to confuse predators because all the extra digging hides where the eggs are buried. Job done she headed back out to sea, the sun still hadn’t set. Hawksbill turtles are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN redlist. It was incredible to finally see a Hawksbill, in full daylight, and nesting too!

Side view of a hawksbill turtle on the beach. Her head is lifted in the air as she squints at the camera. Her pointed beak and face are a pale yellow colour.

The next was a very busy day. I finally got to monitor Burrows to Jurabi Point. This is the last section on the North West Cape completed by the leader that drives the bus. There were six nests and seven false crawls, all from green turtles. I’d been running a photo competition for all NTP volunteers (local and external) to enter. This was to encourage sharing photos, telling stories about their experience and collecting relevant images for the program to use in the future. Today was judging day, it was great to look through and pick winners. Once packed I headed to the ute where my two Bungelup volunteers had already started stowing their things. It took an hour to drive out, it was very windy all the way. Once settled in we spent the afternoon reading. A butcherbird sat on the fence and sang through its repertoire of bird noises including magpie, galah flying away, wren chirp and I think rosella. I used the camp stove to make veggie burritos followed by hot chocolate. After dinner we went out on the beach to look for loggerheads nesting but only found more wind and sand. The moon was about three quarters full so we didn’t need torches to find our way back to camp.

Bungelup camp in all its glory. We are looking at hte only building with the two rooms side by side. Both doors are open so we can see inside to the tubs of food and radio equipment on the right. The room on the left has sinks and is the washroom. A blue esky props the right side door open while the left leans on an old leaning BBQ.
All the amenities you could ever need
A butcherbird sits among the branches of a leafless tree. The whole image is in shades of grey. The bird has its beak slightly open in mid song.

I woke up a lot from the wind during the night. Monitoring the northern two sections we only had one nest and seven false loggerhead crawls. There were a tracks where it was obvious the turtle was missing a flipper, perhaps it had done multiple false crawls in the same night. Other turtles had been making sandcastles. After breakky we headed to Osprey Bay for a snorkel despite the wind. It’s a beautiful bay, with a campground sprawled along the coast beside it. We went in near the small boat ramp which is just an area of sand that cuts a path between the rocks lining the water’s edge. I saw a green turtle swimming along, convict surgeonfish picking algae off her shell, flippers and neck. Picasso triggerfish were everywhere, looking bluer than normal in the shallow water. They ducked into holes in the rock, which were full of tiny orange fish. There was no reef here, it was mostly algae, seagrass and tiny tufts of coral. I spent the afternoon back at Bungalup reading and writing until I cooked a curry. While we were eating a male dingo trotted along the road behind camp. It sniffed a bush, marked its territory then went back out along the road. I got up and closed the gate but it didn’t come back again.

This image shows a volunteer walking behind the dunes to give perspective on how far a turtle has crawled up the beach. The tracks stretch off into the horizon.

Our last morning at Bungelup saw more tracks action, four nests and 18 false crawls. It seemed like the turtles were all going further into the dunes to avoid the wind. One track went off the beach into the dunes about 40 metres back before looping around on itself and coming back the same way. We saw an osprey sitting on a rock on the beach eating a fish, but it quickly left as we approached. Walking back, we came across a brown snake in the middle of the beach. It seemed angry about our presence, curling into an S shape and rearing its head up. We backed away instantly but it moved around tasting the air with its tongue as if to work out where we’d gone. We went around behind the dunes to get past, the fact there was no antivenom in Exmouth running through my head. We found we were only 15 metres from the turnoff back to camp. After breakky we packed up and headed back to town, such a relaxing couple of days even with the wind and unfriendly snake!

Sunlit dunes, the ripples in the sand show the path the wind has left from the night before.

Exploring Ningaloo – week 6

This morning at Five Mile was magical. When I was trying to work out where the first two overlapping tracks went I saw sand spraying into the air. Looked again. Yup, it couldn’t be the wind making it do that. Then I heard the noise, kind of like a dry scraping thump. A turtle was nesting! I gave her plenty of space and saw two more turtles behind her, one on the rock platform between the sand and ocean, another making her way down the beach. We watched the other turtle make its way past the one lying on the platform. As soon as she got to the rockpool nearby she started swimming around, did a loop and swam up to the other one as if to check on it. Then she continued out over the rocks into a deeper pool where she swam around while I continued checking tracks.

Side view of a turtle on the beach, sand pours off her head and raised front right flipper

The nesting turtle was still flicking sand everywhere but then began making her way out of the hole she was in. She must have been covering her eggs. I watched her make her way down the beach. There was sand across one of her eyes and the salty excretion dripping down her face was also covered in sand. She moved onto the rocks. They were high and jagged so she had to climb up and over them. She crawled slowly up and over. Slowing down on the flat stretch, she seemed to catch her breathe. She went straight towards the ocean and disappeared over the lip of rocks into the sea.

A turtle among sharp rocks, flippers pulling her forward
A turtle stops on the rock platform to take a breath
Wave goodbye - back view of a turtle as it tips over the edge of the rock platform into the ocean, flippers flicking water up

I had my own section to monitor on Monday, from Hunters to Mauritius. It was really nice just walking alone along the beach. There were a few fishermen at the start of my section, yelling to each other and breaking the morning peace. Otherwise I had the beach to myself, only 3 nests and 3 false crawls along the 2.5 kilometre section. This was very quiet as I found out later the next section along had 24 turtle tracks recorded. Reaching the end I was still overwhelmed by flies. They were relentless. Sitting on the sand I tried to bury my head between my knees with my arms over my head, it kept all but one off my face. I went for a swim but they seemed to follow me, even the water wasn’t safe!  Back on the beach I watched the water. Everyone who did this stretch knew a loggerhead frequented the shore here. As if on cue she popped up to take a breath. Loggerheads are not as elegant looking as other turtles. They have black around their eyes and a large jaw for crushing their invertebrate prey. This combines to give them a big headed, eye-bulging appearance.

view of a broken sea urchin on the sand, white Aristotle's lantern (mouth parts) in the centre in perfect condition
Beach finds – Aristotle’s lantern in a sea urchin

Woodside Energy is the major sponsor for the Ningaloo Turtle Program this year. They have sent two representatives up to learn about the program. This is a good photo opportunity to post about on the NTP pages. There’s no room on the bus so I drove myself out to meet them at the end section. Along the way I saw a pack of five dingoes around a kangaroo carcass on the side of the road. Most of them ran off as I slowed my car down, pulling up on the opposite side of the road. One male continued to feed. Flies were everywhere, it kept stopping to snap at them. Shooting through the window I watched as another dingo joined it. This second dingo was a young female, only half the size of the male. The smaller one pulled at the kangaroo’s tail. They fed side by side for a bit, then the male started pulling out the kangaroo’s leg bones, cracking into its thigh. The smaller one decided to grab the spine and pull it from the body at the same time. Flies were all over it’s face. The male ran off behind my car and into the low scrub. The bush is short but thick, so he quickly disappeared. The smaller one continued feeding then did the same thing. What an incredible start to the morning!

Two dingoes pick at a kangaroo carcass, orange ion the early morning light
Two dingoes are head down, tail up in the carcass
The smaller female dingo looks back at me over her shoulder, the bushes and her rimmed by golden morning light

We went up to the lighthouse to watch the last sunset of the year, and the decade. There was a lot of haze on the horizon and otherwise a clear sky. It eventually went golden then the sun turned into an orange ball and drifted into the haze, turning into funny shapes, becoming square then just a smudge. We went down to Hunters beach and walked along it looking for hatchlings but saw none, just got sandy feet. Walking to my room later, I saw a flock of corellas fly over, white bodies contrasting starkly against the black sky.

The start of new year’s day, I could hear the usual corellas moving about as I got up at 5am. Heading out early I didn’t see any wildlife along the way apart from three bustards at the Lakeside turnoff. It was already windy there so I moved on to Turquoise Bay and did a walk around the bay. It was so calm. I saw a shark fin while sitting on the rocks at the northern end, staring at the sea and thinking about how full the last decade had been and how much I’d done that I never thought I would. It didn’t have a black tip, just a silver fin so I wasn’t sure what kind it was. I forced myself into the water at turquoise drift. The wind was coming up stronger, making the surface choppy and there was already a strong current so I didn’t stay in long. A blue spotted lagoon ray was feeding, kicking up clouds of sand with its movements. It allowed me to take a few photos then swam off, flapping its body over the coral.

A brown stingray covered in blue polka dots glides over the ocean floor

On the section Jacobsz South to Wobiri I came across a turtle still covering her eggs. In doing so she’d almost completely buried herself in her secondary body pit. There was sand all over her shell and head, you just saw the occasional flick of sand, sometimes a flipper. I waited for over twenty minutes and she was still covering the eggs, I waited some more. Eventually she’d covered them to her liking and dragged herself out of the hole this in itself took some time. Turtles must have extremely strong pectoral muscles because they only use their front flippers to pull themselves along. I’ve seen them heave themselves over rocks, down the beach and where they’ve gone up steep sand dunes I struggled to walk up myself. Turtles constantly amaze me with their strength and stubborn determination to nest and get back to sea.

Side view of a turtle as it moves down the beach, it's shell and head are heaped in sand
Portrait of the same turtle, sand is everywhere even piled around her eye and on top of her head

Sand poured off her but there was still a layer on her shell and head as she began crawling down the beach. Luckily she didn’t have far to go, it was starting to get hot. There were no rocks to cross either so she made her way back into the water quite quickly (for a turtle). Once her flippers were underwater a wave broke over her shell washing off the sand and leaving only patterned shell. She started flapping her flippers wildly to swim away. She poked her head above the water and snorted a jet of water from her nostrils. Walking back up towards the carpark I spotted a shovel nosed ray in the shallows. There can’t be a better start to the day then a walk on the beach at Ningaloo during nesting season.

Back view as the turtle disappears into the wash, a wave hits her shell washing the sand away

Exploring Ningaloo – week 5

Since Mitch and his parents arrived only two days ago it feels like a week has passed, we’ve fit so much in. The first afternoon I took them to Bundegi for a snorkel under the boat ramp. There were only a few schools of fish at first, then I saw a giant shovelnose ray. He quickly swam off across the bay though with his entourage of remoras. Looking in the shadows we found our first stonefish. A big reddish brown fellow, with a massive head, its body tapering like a teardrop from the large head and downturned mouth. It has the weirdest way of moving, instead of swimming it hops along the bottom. Knowing how it moved we could follow its strange hopping trail along the sandy bottom, winding its way from the base of a pylon into a discarded concrete cylinder. Somewhere along the way we picked up a juvenile trevally. This little yellow fish was about the size of my pinky, bright yellow with black vertical stripes. It had a large eye so when it slowed down I could clearly see it looking up at me as if to work out what I was. The little fish stayed with us no matter how fast we swam and when we hung around in the shallows would try to swim in the shade we cast.

A stonefish sits on the sandy bottom under the boat ramp. he looks unimpressed with his large, downturned mouth.
The little yellow trevally hovers beneath my hands, held together out in front as I snorkel. The water looks green.

The next day we were up early to head out into the park. Along the road we saw plenty of bustards. Stopping at Tantabiddi boat ramp to show them the osprey we were rewarded with one in the nest and another soon landing. We saw the parent osprey flying in carrying a surgeonfish and give it to the fledgling on the nest. A squabble of flapping wings and piercing cries quickly broke out over this new morsel, before a flurry of heavy wing beats. One flew off holding a damselfish that must have been delivered earlier. Not bad for a first day with the osprey!

Mitch: Watching this was incredible, but the opportunity to capture it was even better. I was lucky enough to be using a 70-200mm lens with a 1.7x teleconverter on my D850 body. This combination allowed me to fill the frame with the ospreys. It’s safe to say without the teleconverter these images just wouldn’t be as close. I’d be relying on a heavy crop to fill the frame. Not necessarily a problem with the resolution you can get out of the 850 but still potentially limiting. When shooting I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. The rest was time, patience and a bit of luck.

Continuing on we saw a dingo, more bustards and even snakes crossing the road, possibly pythons, they were very shiny and black. They also moved like lightning, so a quick glimpse was all we got. A black snake on a black road in 35 degrees makes for a very fast reptile. Yardie Creek is literally the end of the road as you need to go through water to cross it. Here we went for a walk along the top of the gorge overlooking the creek. More osprey were hanging around near the Yardie Creek tour boat. We could see the cliffs on the opposite side of the creek. They were red and perpendicular to the creek. A row of oysters grew straight at the waters edge, kept even by the tide. We saw black flanked rock wallabies in amongst the bushes, fossilised coral imprints were everywhere in the rocks. At a particularly steep downward section we turned back, a swim was calling us.

I took them to the Turquoise drift, it was cold but nice and clear again. We saw some sharks a black tip and a white tip. They always seem to be heading out in the northern section of the reef just before the rip. Mitch’s parents saw a turtle and there were the usual suspects of reef fish. I also saw a nudibranch swimming on the sand as if it had just been knocked off its perch. Next stop was Lakeside. It was very choppy but we had a nice quick swim with a few more sharks. One seemed to be circling its patch of reef. The osprey was on the sanctuary marker and today there were about five blue spot lagoon rays in the shallows where you walk onto the beach. The rays were skittish quickly taking off if you stepped into the water to get a closer look.

Another morning found us back at the ospreys. One fledgling was on the nest, another tried to fly in but the wind was so strong it couldn’t land, settling on a nearby post instead. The parent brought a fish and the one on the nest was all excited, flapping its wings and screeching as she flew closer. Another fledgling sat on a pole head into the wind down by the boat ramp. It was quite fluffed up and looked very unimpressed with the weather. Yet another osprey was sitting on a dead branch on the opposite side of a small lake next to the carpark. That makes five, so the two parents and three fledglings, what a good crop of young!

Lakeside was less choppy than the previous day and definitely worth it. A large grouper was resting next to a coral bommie, blue fish swam above it near the coral. A green turtle about 20-30 years old swam up, she was happy to hang out with us and take a few breaths before swimming on. Further along we saw a black tip. I was filming it when mitch went to duck dive and it suddenly shot up to the surface then away into the distance. I don’t think it had noticed Mitch was there. Out best guess is the shark thought the large shape moving above it was a much bigger predator. Heading off again I failed to film the blue spot stingrays resting in the shallows, they just didn’t want me close to them.

Christmas Eve was spent running around food shopping and preparing bulk salads for the 20 person lunch we were holding on Christmas day. Christmas morning was fairly relaxed, we set up gazebos, organised the tables and chairs and decorated with tinsel and lights. Lunch went down well, even if it was over 40 degrees and very humid. We went for a swim at Bundegi to cool off afterwards. The school of fish under the boat ramp seemed thicker than last time and swirled around the pylons endlessly. We followed a giant shovelnose ray away from the boat ramp across the sandy bay, it had three juvenile trevally with it. I wondered if one was our friend from the other day. We swam out to the white buoy about halfway across the bay and found a yellow sponge and fragments of algae covered coral.

Mitch and I went to watch the sunset at Hunters Beach. It was a nice night, we saw turtles mating near the shore and a few pop up for breath. The sun set to our right instead of over the ocean behind us, confusing my sense of direction. Afterwards we went for a walk along the beach and I showed Mitch turtle tracks in the sand. He loved watching the ghost crabs in the wash. Some would bury themselves under the sand others would be hit by waves and go tumbling. There was a new moon so no turtles were coming up to nest where we were. We headed to Surf Beach to look for more and saw an owlet nightjar on the road. It’s huge eyes fluoresced under the cars headlights before it quickly blasted off into the night. There were no turtles nesting at Surf Beach either.

Boxing Day I was monitoring Five Mile to Five Mile North and took everyone with me. Halfway along we saw a turtle heading back out to sea along the rock platform. It always amazes me how tough and leathery their flippers must be as they drag themselves over the sharp, rocky surface. She didn’t nest just a false crawl. No one was happy to hear that after seeing how much effort she must have put in to drag herself up the dunes, dig a body pit then crawl back across the rock platform. It was a lot of energy expended for no reward.

Mitch: Taking photos of a turtle dragging itself back into the water was always going to be a new experience. What I wasn’t ready for is realising they manage to lift their upper bodies up off the ground on their front flippers! There was no secret for capturing her hard slog down the beach, it was all about taking the time to watch her and understand how she moved. This includes the moment she found a rockpool deep enough for her head and decided plonking her face in and ignoring the world was a good idea. Not something I’ll forget anytime soon.

We went out for a snorkel at oyster stacks, there weren’t as many fish as other times I’d been and it was quite cold water for 9.30 in the morning! It wasn’t as clear as usual either and there wasn’t as much frenzied fish feeding. We spent most of our time finning hard against a surging current as the waves pushed us towards the sharp coral beneath us. We headed to Lakeside next which offered a little more sanctuary from the surge, but the same roaring current. Seeing a huge grouper under the coral, a turtle happy to have us swim near her made the leg burning swim worthwhile. We still ended up sucked down the length of the beach by the rushing water. On leaving we ran into the NTP group, all standing under their gazebo on the beach applying sunscreen. We told them about the current then were off to say goodbye to the ospreys.

Breakfast on their last day in Exmouth at Social Society was a large affair (the meals that is). I ordered avocado toast and it came piled high with pepitas, feta and a poached egg. After dropping everyone at the airport the car temperature gauge read 50 degrees as if to remind me it definitely gets hot here. I headed back to the office to catch up on a few things and found a book on turtles with lots of pictures, perfect for me and a slow afternoon. After grocery shopping my fridge was full again. I settled down with a mango smoothie to read the turtle book and get used to being by myself once more.

Exploring Ningaloo – week 4

The week passed in a blur, every day I am out with one of the volunteers shadowing them while they do their section of beach. It’s a good chance to take photos and chat. The north west cape is split up into ten sections that are monitored every day for a month and a few weekends every fortnight either side of this peak season. We have a roster to know who is doing what section every day, but as the media intern I only have three monitoring days myself so I am free to go wherever I choose. Luckily, this week, I was tagging along on one of the middle section beaches and we came across a turtle returning to the ocean. She was a large green, with a shell around a metre long. To be nesting she would be at least forty years old. We were on a sandy beach so at least there were no rocks she had to cross. Just dragging herself down the sand looked like a supreme effort. Every couple of minutes she would stop, lift her head as if she were in water and breathe. It was so funny to see but I guess if you spend the majority of your life underwater that habit would be ingrained. Finally, she slipped into the water, job done.

The back view of a turtle as it makes its way down the sand. You can see the tracks its flippers have made.
Side view of a green turtle, resting as it makes its way down the beach. Behind it a lone seagull looks out to sea in the background.
A wave breaks over the turtles head and front half of her shell as she enters the wash

After monitoring, myself and the other team leaders head to the local school to talk to different classes about turtles. We cover every year from kindergarten to year four. The turtle skulls and taxidermied turtle we bring with us are a big hit. We also demonstrate a turtle nesting in the sandpit while trying to get across the turtle watching code of conduct by playing games with the younger kids. They all have plenty of questions or stories about when they’ve seen a turtle. The most challenging class was a group of pre-primary kids (the first compulsory year in WA) that had spent the morning at the school’s Christmas concert. They put their hands up then talked over one another, one boy seemed to like rolling around on the floor. The holidays were just around the corner so attention spans were very short. We got through it though, handing out stickers and surviving our stint of school talks.

After rushing down a peanut butter sandwich we all piled into the bus and headed for oyster stacks. It is gin clear again and full of life. I swim out as far as the waves but get distracted on the way by a school of convict surgeonfish. They are a blur of yellow with black horizontal stripes as a wave pushes them past me. They are feeding on the algae, stopping in groups to nibble at the plant growing on top of the coral. Then more and more come until there is a writhing pile of yellow fish on one small patch of reef. Something happens that I don’t see and one after another they start to swim on and repeat the whole process again. Reading my book on the fish of Ningaloo later I learn this technique of swimming en masse to feed at one patch is a strategy to overcome the territorial damselfish that live on the reef. Each black damselfish is around the size of my hand and patrols a territory of algae which it feeds on itself.

Over twenty  yellow convict surgeonfish feed in a mass on algae, black horizontal stripes are everywhere!

I swim out to where the waves are breaking on the reef, trying to get over the edge and see what is in the deeper water on the other side. The waves push me around, it feels even shallower here and the whole floor is one unbroken mass of coral. If a wave pushes me onto the coral I will shred my uncovered legs. I kick back towards the distant red shore, the occasional wave pushing me in the right direction. About to get out I spot a large school of fish. They are greencheek parrotfish but to me look like swimming rainbows, with patches of every colour on their body. Orange heads and fins, green cheeks, blue tails and fin edges and purple and yellow bodies. They are incredibly gaudy and I love them. How can a rainbow fish not make you happy? I spend time floating around with the school as they scrape algae off the rocks next to shore. The sound of them feeding is like rain falling on a distant tin roof mixed with scrunching aluminium foil. People usually think the reef is a quiet place, underwater is anything but!

View of a wave coming towards me over the reef. The white water is in the distance and a surge of water fills the top third of the frame
The wave breaks on me, half the frame is white wash and bubbles. The lower half you can see the coral through the blue water, unmoving.

The local vet runs a turtle rehabilitation facility in her own backyard. We were lucky enough to check it out. It is comprised of four large tubs between the house and back fence. Seawater is filtered through homemade contraptions and there were four turtles in residence when we arrived. Heather the 100kg green turtle came in as a floater. This is common in rehab turtles who can no longer dive because a bacterial or viral infection has caused a build up of gases in their gut. They float at the surface, slowly starving and growing barnacles. When someone brings the turtle in for treatment it is usually named after the person who called it in. The vet gives it a freshwater bath and the barnacles are picked off. A rehydrating glucose solution is given to the turtle and they may be placed on a course of antibiotics which are injected into their shoulder (without hitting the bone).

They are fed squid but mostly lettuce and seagrass as they are all green turtles (this species is herbivorous as an adult). Catalina was also a floater, she is around 10-15 years old and has a lot of growing to do. Lexi is much older and has scars all over her shell. Heather is missing the tip of her right front flipper and AJ was also found floating and is another small turtle, around the size of Catalina but much lighter in colour. As the place doesn’t have an education permit they cannot do tours of the facility and funding is limited because of this. It also means I can’t share any of the photos I’ve taken. In a few days Mitch arrives, I can’t wait to get my favourite snorkeling buddy back.

Exploring Ningaloo – week 3

I walked Jacobsz South to Wobiri today to record tracks. I was dropped off on the side of Yardie Creek Road with another lady to walk 500 metres along a soft, sandy 4wd track to the beach. We saw emu and dingo footprints and chatted along the way. She had moved here recently from North Dakota USA, which is close to Canada, leaving their snow clothes in storage. Her husband had begun working at the solar observatory in Exmouth. This facility is staffed by a mix of Bureau of Meteorology observers and US defence force personnel. They observe and monitor things like solar flares which are really important for GPS. I guess if you owned any satellites you’d want to keep an eye out for blasts from the sun that could destroy them. This observatory is one of only a dozen or so in the world. I’d never even heard of it before coming to Exmouth.

Down on the beach we headed in opposite directions. I soon came upon a green turtle track surrounded by dingo pawprints. There were no human footprints other than mine on the beach. Following the turtle track up into the dunes, the dingo pawprints covered the track, there were three different sized paw marks in the sand. The turtle had dug one body pit then left, maybe the dingoes had disturbed her nesting. No other turtles nested on the beach that night, one had done a quick u-turn as soon as it emerged from the water. Makes me think the dingoes were hanging around on the beach all night.

Dingo paw prints and turtle tracks cross over in this image looking up the sand
Two dingoes and a turtle are walking up a beach…

After monitoring we began preparing for the external volunteer welcome BBQ. There were 12 external volunteers travelling to Exmouth from all over Australia to help out with the Ningaloo Turtle Program’s intensive monitoring period. We welcomed them with burgers followed by fruit salad and ice cream then they were off to bed after their day of travel. The group are a good mix of people, with different ages and backgrounds (not just science graduates). I’m looking forward to getting to know them over the next five weeks.

For the volunteer’s first day of beach training, I headed out with them to take some photos. We walked Five Mile to Five Mile North, which is the only site where you return to the same carpark, where we’d left the bus. It was chaos in turtle tracks. There were emerges and returns overlapping along the section, we had a loggerhead track which looked like a hawksbill, a real hawksbill track and nest which was difficult to tell apart from a false crawl. A false crawl is when a turtle comes up the beach and either walks straight back to the water or begins digging a hole then abandons it without nesting. We use our judgement based on the evidence to determine if we think a turtle has nested successfully. The only way to be certain is to have someone on every beach, each night, watching every turtle. This is clearly not possible or realistic, so we base our assessment on the presence of an escarpment (sand bank formed by when the turtle digs a primary body pit), misting (sand thrown over the emerge track when the turtle digs), uprooted vegetation and the texture of the sand (if you stand on a real nest you sink quickly, though not enough to damage the eggs).

The poor vollies were a bit overwhelmed after being thrown in the deep end with this beach, hopefully tomorrow’s will be a little easier. We got a call over the radio from Heather, a WA Parks and Wildlife officer, leading the other group. She was down on Mauritius and had a clear loggerhead track and nest to show them. She also had a nest that had been predated by dingoes. She’d covered most of it over but there were still fresh curled up pieces of eggshell and yolk drying in the sun. Digging up nests is a learnt behaviour for dingoes, it is not an instinct for them to dig up nests they learn it from seeing other dingoes do it. In this situation the turtle had not done much to cover this nest so we assumed the dingoes had found the turtle while she was laying. If Dingoes had learnt to dig up nests we’d be seeing many more predation events across the beaches we monitor, so far this was the first one recorded this season.

Turtle egg shells are scattered in the dug out nest of a green turtle
All that remains following a dingo’s breakfast

This week also saw us taking all the external volunteers and meeting some locals at Bungelup camp. We spent a sweaty morning loading the trailer and back of two utes with all our swags and cooking equipment, even a portable fridge. Our first stop was the Milyering visitor centre so the volunteers could hire snorkel gear and check the place out. The visitors centre was full of skulls, taxidermy specimens and found objects like sea urchin tests and birds nests complete with eggs. It gave me a strong idea of how many animal species were in the area, which was hard to comprehend when nothing was out during most of the day.

Next stop was Sandy Bay for a swim. Another sheltered bay with aqua water and amazingly white sand. No coral here but a few people saw a turtle, we also watched a dingo walk along the beach in the distance. Back on the bus we arrived just after the trailer with all the swags and set up camp. We all shared a rock to bang the tent pegs into the ground (later finding the mallets). Sunset was spent at the beach while the pasta cooked. Dinner went down well, after helping with all the washing up I stayed for the very competitive trivia night.

Seven swags are set up together amongst the bushes, the sun sets behind them
Swag city Bungelup
Sunset at Bungelup beach, the sand is golden and the beach is covered with footprints.
Bungelup beach at sunset – waiting for the turtles to come up

We were on the beach before breakfast looking at loggerhead tracks. We saw dolphins, they were jumping sideways out of the water and looked quite frisky. Ghost crabs ran into the water and were tumbled around in the wash. I headed back early to help cook pancakes for breakky and pack up.

A dolphin sticks its head vertically out of the water, eye looking directly at the camera
A sandy track leads from the middle right of the photo back across the frame and curves out of sight behind the spinifex and low scrub. You can just make a ridge line out in the distance.
Road out of the remote camp

Back on the road we stopped in at Turquoise Bay for a snorkel, it was the clearest I’d ever seen it. I had a reef shark swim past and saw three adult angelfish in one little patch. They were all different species from the small, navy keyhole angelfish to the larger blue and sixband angelfishes. I’ve loved angelfish ever since seeing a juvenile one on my first open water dive. The juveniles are completely different colours to the adults. The emperor juvenile I saw all those years ago was dark blue with neon blue and white lines forming concentric circles and spots. It’s adult form has yellow and blue horizontal stripes, like a circus outfit. I’ll keep an eye out for juvenile angelfish at Ningaloo, they would be amazing to see again. It was a very relaxing place to spend the afternoon and all the volunteers loved getting out to see the reef.

By Friday, training was over for the volunteers and they all passed their assessments. We celebrated by getting a heap of pizzas. Sunday night we went out to mark off all the old tracks ready to begin fresh on Monday for four weeks of daily monitoring. After dropping everyone off I parked the bus and walked a kilometre along a sandy four wheel drive track to the beach. It was full of rocks then soft sand, there was no easy place to walk, no wonder the bus couldn’t come in here. Once at the beach I drew my line from the totem pole down to the high tide mark and started walking. It was only 1.5 kilometres but there were a lot of tracks. The high tide had come up most of the beach so the tracks were all in the dunes in soft sand. As I turned around to walk back the sun had already started sinking. I walked as fast as I could. There was a turtle beginning to drag herself out of the water I gave her a wide berth, walking up into the dunes to get around. The sun set during the drive but luckily I got everyone home before dark. We were ready to get to work!

Image of the sunset over the ocean, there are no clouds but the sky is gold and orange, this light is reflected in the sand in the foreground, the waves almost look black as the light fades

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!

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.

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