Underwater encounters – Can you make friends with fish?

To some people, fish seem completely devoid of personality. You’ve seen one fish you’ve seen them all. In my experience this hasn’t been true. A few years ago, I volunteered at the research station on Lizard Island. This island is a picturesque tropical paradise, named for the goannas traipsing around the beaches. The island is also home to a resort and the Australian Museum’s research station. Coral reefs surround the island and are used as an underwater lab by researchers and students.

A turtle and its hangers on

One morning before my volunteer work began for the day I snuck down to the beach for a snorkel. Heading offshore I passed beds of seagrass growing out of the sand. Then I came across a green sea turtle having breakfast. This herbivore was feeding on seagrass, which turns the fat in its body green – hence its name.

I watched the turtle as it swam and grazed. There was something weird about this one. Finally, the turtle swam up to take a breath and I could see two large fish firmly attached to the bottom of its shell.

These fish were remoras, more commonly called suckerfish. Their name means delay or hinder, which is an accurate description. Their dorsal (top) fin has evolved into a flat plate on the top of their heads. This suction disc contains collagen fibres to maximise the remoras contact with its host. Collagen comes from the Greek word for glue. You might be familiar with collagen because it is the most abundant protein in your body and gives your skin that plump look. The suction disc also contains thousands of tiny spines that increase friction, helping the fish ‘stick’. This allows remoras to suction themselves onto larger, moving animals. The bond is so strong a remora can stay attached to a dolphin even when it leaps out of the water!

So, what was the remora doing on the turtle? Well it depends on the species. Some remoras just opportunistically feed on their host’s food scraps and get a free ride. They spend little energy when another animal transports them so don’t have to eat much. Other remora species help their host by removing parasites. When both animals benefit this relationship is called commensalism. So, it seems fish can get along with other sea creatures.

Remoras can also have commensal relationships with people. In some parts of the world remoras are used in fishing. How you ask? Well a fisherman attaches a line to a remora, sends it off into the ocean and the remora attaches itself to a turtle or larger fish. The fisherman can then carefully reel in the remora and the animal it is stuck to. The fisherman catches something and the remora is fed scraps for its job.

Snorkel side kicks

I had a hanger on myself once. One afternoon during an internship in Exmouth, Western Australia I went for an afternoon snorkel. My boyfriend and his parents were visiting so I took them to the nearby Bundegi Boat ramp to see what was living underneath. We saw the usual stonefish sitting grumpily in its PVC pipe, the schools of baitfish and the occasional angelfish that had drifted in from the nearby Ningaloo Reef.

A little yellow fish decided to swim with us for most of our snorkel. It was about the size of my pinky, yellow with a few black vertical stripes. It looked a little cartoonish thanks to its large eyes that looked up at me. It would swim along with me for a while, hiding in my shadow then if I duck dived it would abandon me for my partner nearby. Back and forth it swam between us, happily joining our snorkel.

This fish was a juvenile golden trevally. Juveniles of this species often form groups and follow larger fish like groupers, sharks and even SCUBA divers. They do this because the large fish protects them from being eaten by other predators. The large fish doesn’t eat the juvenile trevally because they are fast moving and can out manoeuvre their host.

It is clear to me that individual fish have personalities and science is starting to back this up. In one study of guppies individual fish reacted differently to stressful situations indicating different personality types. Research continues with another study about to begin which examines how much butterfly fish personality varies between individuals living on different reefs. But can fish be your friend? Well this little yellow fish found something to like about us and tolerated the rest. Not that different from any human friend really. These encounters taught me that whenever you get in the water there’s a chance to interact with marine life. Make sure these are positive for all involved.

Underwater encounters – dancing sharks and moody fish

For the second post in this series I interviewed a special guest. Let me introduce Paul Baskys, a dive instructor who lived and dived in Papua New Guinea for three years. I sat down with Paul and asked about his most memorable underwater encounters. Here’s what he told me…

Titan Triggerfish

Paul’s first story takes us to the Pai 2, a wreck dive south east of Port Moresby, PNG. This old Japanese fishing boat was purposely sunk in 1982 to form an artificial reef dive site. It’s a great dive, you slowly swim around the boat, which is bursting with life. Schools of glassfish smother the wreck. Colourful sponges and soft corals decorate the rusted steel hull.

While Paul was exploring Pai 2 his dive buddy swam up to him and began gesturing. In strange underwater sign language his buddy, Mitch, pointed at the stern then crossed his arms in a big X shape. Paul nodded, don’t go near the stern, got it! He looked over but couldn’t see what Mitch was so worried about and continued exploring the wreck.

Everyone was running low on air so it was time to head back to the boat. Paul swum back over the wreck, past the stern, heading towards the reef where the boat was waiting. Something caught his eye. A titan triggerfish! These large fish have a sharp beak for crunching through coral and sea urchins. Their eyes are enormous and independently rotate to follow your every move. They’re one of Paul’s favourite species and he hadn’t seen them on the Pai 2 before.

The triggerfish looked like it was feeding. Its snout nudged around in the algae growing on the wreck. Paul swam closer to shoot some video. The fish tensed its body like an athlete at the start of a 100 metre sprint. It turned away, then suddenly spun and swam straight at Paul. He quickly retreated. The triggerfish snapped at the camera, spun around, and lunged at the camera again. Satisfied the human was far enough away the triggerfish went back to its business.

Paul finally understood what Mitch was warning him about. Mitch had seen the nest of triggerfish eggs, a pink gelatinous mass, early in the dive. Both male and female triggerfish will aggressively defend their nests. On a dive a few months later Paul saw a nesting triggerfish under a boat mooring. Having learnt his lesson, he was able to steer a group of divers away from a similar attack.

Grey Reef Shark

The second story also took place in PNG when Paul was leading a dive off Fishermen’s Island (aka Daugo Island in the local language). The dive is on a coral wall near the edge of the continental shelf, where the ocean floor drops down to 600 metres. Divers jump in and drift along the wall, meeting the boat at a rendezvous point.

Looking away from the wall Paul spotted a shark. It was an adult grey reef shark, about two metres long. Normally sharks propel themselves forward using their tail (caudal fin) which makes their head slowly wiggle from left to right. This shark’s movements were exaggerated. It was bending its head almost 90 degrees to each side. Paul looked back at the divers obliviously staring at the wall and decided to keep an eye on shark that was still about 40 metres away.

The divers continued to drift along the wall. The shark arched its back and dropped its front (pectoral) fins. Paul decided it was time to move the divers on. He got the group’s attention and signalled it was time to head to the rendezvous point. One diver got excited, waving at everyone, and pointing behind Paul. All nine divers swam past Paul straight towards the shark. This was bad as dive leader it would be his fault if something happened, but also good because there were now nine other people between him and the shark.

The shark continued its threat display and swam closer. It was now 15 metres away. Paul herded the group back towards the boat. Out of the water everyone was excited about the shark encounter. One diver remarked, “Wasn’t that an awesome dance the shark was doing?!”. Paul dived the site again over the coming months and saw many grey reef sharks but luckily none were ‘dancing’.

Paul’s stories highlight the incredible natural behaviours we can witness up close underwater. These stories also serve as a warning to learn a little about the creatures you may encounter so you know what they’re really trying to tell you.

To read more about shark threat displays check out R. Aiden Martin’s article https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10236240601154872

Exploring Ningaloo- week 9 (last week!)

Today marks the start of the last week of my internship. I was up at 5am to go look for turtles at Five Mile, hoping to see some hatchlings. A cyclone was building further to the north, it wasn’t expected to hit Exmouth but was driving increased humidity here. Just getting out of the car left me covered in sweat. There was only one turtle in my favourite rockpool, doing its best rock impersonation. I walked all the way to the totem which marks the end of the section, but saw no signs of a hatchling emergence other than old tracks. A Rufous fieldwren was hopping around in the dunes, from one clump of grass to the next.  I walked back down the beach, past the carpark and continued towards Trisel hoping to see something. I didn’t see any turtle tracks or turtles but there was a blue and white kingfisher flying from rock to rock. Looking it up in my bird books later, we identified it as a juvenile sacred kingfisher because of its brown tufted belly and brown-white brow colouring. It found a crab and seemed to struggle to swallow it whole, banging the crab on a rock as if to squash it down. It’s surprising seeing these two birds on the beach after only ever seeing seagulls here before.

Photo captured a wren midair as it hops in the sand dunes. Backlit sand grains are flying in every direction
A kingfisher sits on a rock trying to swallow a crab that fills its beak

The day only got hotter and sweatier from there. We dropped the volunteers off at the airport then spent the rest of the day cleaning the Turtle Bus. After vacuuming, pressure washing, wiping down every surface and window it looked better but I don’t think all of the sand will ever come out. The next day was also focused on maintenance. We unrolled all 16 swags, to check for any repairs needed or missing parts. We moved on to washing all the backpacks taken monitoring every day. So much sand came out when I shook them, but also rubbish and bits of fishing line as the volunteers like to clean up the beaches they work on. Washing them turned the water brown very quickly, at least it was so hot they should dry fast.

Landscape scene looking back towards the road from the beach car park, sea mist turned everything a shade of grey

I was up and out on the beach again on Wednesday. It was really muggy and the sea mist was so thick it looked like a layer of fog over the landscape, turning the world grey. There were no turtles on the rock platform at Five Mile which was a real surprise, the first time this season. There were barely any tracks either. Further along the beach I noticed a group of seagulls down near the water. There was seaweed and debris everywhere, shells, broken urchins, bits of sponges, even a lobster antenna. Then I noticed one seagull had something white in its beak and was being chased by the other gulls. Walking closer I noticed there were white things scattered everywhere among the seaweed. They were broken turtle eggs! They were all fresh, there were no signs of yolk or blood, no yellow aging on them from being in the sun. My best guess is a turtle released eggs into the water and they’ve washed up so the seagulls have had a party. I counted 36 shell fragments (the larger pieces that looked like most of an egg) before stopping. There were 50 seagulls around looking content and well fed.

turtle egg broken on the beach like a flower with its petals falling apart
Broken white turtle egg shells scattered among the seaweed and rocks

Back home I put in a full day behind the computer. Editing photos, writing a new Standard Operating Procedure with recommendations for next season’s intern, preparing all my photos for the articles I’d written and finishing off interview captions, before sending it all on to the NTP coordinator. I ended the day back at Five Mile hoping to see some hatchlings around sunset. I walked up the beach and found a seat near a clump of spinifex where I could watch over the whole beach. The other direction was a blaze of light from the setting sun. It was slightly cooler, a turtle head popped up to breathe just offshore. It was a nice place to watch the sun go down. I read my friends blog on a handicraft market she’d visited in Pakistan, feeling even more remote on my beach. It was almost dark as I headed back to the car, no hatchlings tonight.

Thursday. My last full day here, so I was out at Five Mile. Again, there wasn’t much turtle action to see. The high tide had seeped most of the way up the beach to the edge of the dunes so only tracks above that hadn’t been washed away. No turtles on the rock platform or beach. I walked to the totem then beyond, looking at urchins, one had its Aristotle’s lantern clearly intact. Wet chocolate cowries the size of 10 cent pieces littered the shoreline, glistening in the early morning sun. Pied oystercatchers hurried off when I approached. Seagulls pecked at urchins and stood quietly.

A seagull eating a sea urchin in a shallow rock pool
Three ruddy turnstones and a sanderling share a rockpool

I went to say goodbye to the osprey at Tantabiddi. For the first time there were none on the nest. A single bird out of the family of five stood on a pole in the carpark. It stretched its wings upward then sat calling as I took some photos. It eventually flew off, much smoother than any flights I’d seen around Christmas. The fledglings had grown up during my time here. Making the most of my last day I went to Lakeside for a snorkel. There was an osprey perched on the sanctuary post, just like the first time I’d come. In the water it was hard swimming out, I kept getting pushed sideways by the current. Grey drummer were everywhere, feeding near the surface on clumps of floating algae. They were moving much faster than I’d seen them do before. Even though it was a bit murky I saw two species of clownfish, some angelfish, wrasse and a school of different surgeonfish species.

Onwards I drove for one last snorkel at Turquoise Drift. The Rufous fieldwren (I think!) I’d seen many times in the carpark flew under my car as I opened the door, new bugs! The water was its normal vivid turquoise colour and so inviting. A bit murky again in the water yet the fish seemed active. I saw a few new fish species I still couldn’t name, that list seems endless even after nine weeks! Driving the long road back into town I reflected on how much I wouldn’t miss this long drive…just all the places hidden along it.

close up of a grey chiton on a rock with its mantle extended around its oval shaped body

The farewell dinner was at a local restaurant. While the food was okay the real highlight was a brown snake moving around the outside seating area. A bamboo fence was stopping it from easily escaping so it just kept slithering along the fence. A chef came out to shoo it off with a broom but five minutes later it was back on the opposite side of the courtyard. One of the rangers at dinner with us called it a Gwardar, identifying it as the poisonous western brown snake. I wonder if he was here for the chicken with seasonal veg too? We all kept still and lifted our feet up until it had been shooed even further away. Before dessert we were given thank you presents and cards, it was finally sinking in that our time here was ending.

Friday was a whirlwind of busy-ness for me. I cleaned the dirt and sand off my hire car in the morning before scheduling all the NTP posts for the next month and entering a photo competition. It was sad handing in my key to the office and saying goodbyes. This took much longer than you might think, leaving me scurrying into the apartment at 12:30 to eat and pack everything in an hour and a half. This included the fun Tetris game of getting it all to fit into the car while leaving room for Mitch’s bags. At last I was packed, said goodbye to the other team leaders and had dropped my key at reception. I was off to the airport at last! Mitch’s plane touched the runway but was being pushed by a westerly crosswind so it took off again. Everyone in the terminal was left wondering what happened. Almost ten minutes later we heard the plane approaching again. We crowded around the windows to see it land safely, but on two wheels. Watching the people file off the plane and down the stairs I spotted Mitch’s Akubra bobbing along. I finally got the hug I’d been waiting three weeks for! After picking up his bag and bundling him into the car we were off. Goodbye Ningaloo you were incredible, now it’s time for the next adventure!!!

…—…—…

Since finishing the program I’ve heard some interesting figures from the NTP coordinator. In total during the peak season (four weeks) we counted 1,227 turtle nests across the three different species (green, loggerhead and hawksbill). This reflects a quiet season as the average total number of nests since 2002 is usually around 1,913. I’m not sure how many false crawls were recorded but it was always much higher than the number of successful nests. As usual the majority of nests were made by green turtles (71%) followed by loggerheads (25%) and hawksbills (4%). This puts into context just how special it was for me to see a hawksbill laying!

The opportunity to spend over two months as a Multimedia and Communications Intern was an experience I won’t forget for many reasons. Every day I had the chance to walk along a beach taking photos and collecting stories to promote the program. This taste of another field has left me wanting more and will keep me motivated to forge a career in science communication so maybe one day I will be getting paid to do something I love. This is the only internship of its kind in Australia where someone can practice their science communication skills in a real-world setting. It was definitely pivotal in making up my mind about a career change so I can only hope more opportunities like this will be created. The autonomy I had to learn about the program then communicate it with the public is a unique freedom I won’t get anywhere else. It left me feeling like I had contributed something significant to turtle conservation at Ningaloo.

I also had the chance to immerse myself in a new and very different place. Exmouth is a fantastic town to call home, even for a short time. The locals are friendly and welcoming. If you ever get the chance be sure to say hello to Jess at Ningaloo Bulk Foods who set up her shop to give people the opportunity to reduce waste, especially single use plastics (she also makes the world’s best peanut butter, a tasty souvenir). I had a blast exploring the area, above and below water and meeting all the creatures that call Ningaloo home. While I’ll probably never be able to name all the fish it has been fun to try! My brain is still overwhelmed by the experience and processing everything I’ve taken in as I write these posts weeks later. If you are considering joining the Ningaloo Turtle Program or doing some other science-based volunteer work all I can do is encourage you. This program relies on volunteers to function, while funding from sponsors provides a rental bus and accommodation and food allowances for team leaders there is no money to pay for people to do the actual work. Although getting paid to spend a few hours walking up the beach each morning is a marine scientist’s dream that just isn’t going to happen unless funding for science increases exponentially (hey, a girl can dream!). I’d encourage everyone to make the most of volunteer opportunities to do things they never otherwise would, how else would I get to spend two months at Ningaloo taking photos?! Finally, I’d like to thank the Ningaloo Turtle Program and all the staff at Exmouth Parks and Wildlife for an incredible summer!

Exploring Ningaloo – week 8

It’s the external volunteer’s last week with the program. For weeks I’d been heading out with each one to take their portraits and have a chat for an interview series. I’d finished the series so could choose any beach to tag along on, of course I picked Five Mile. With its huge rocky platform and stretch of dunes there was always something to see here. Today I wasn’t disappointed. There were three turtles along the first half of this 800-metre stretch. As soon as I stepped out of the car park, I saw tracks in the sand moving parallel to the rock platform. Instead of heading out to sea a turtle had gone for a 100 metre walk along the beach. She was still doing circles in the sand as I approached. She was quite large and clearly exhausted from her wandering. I squatted down and remained still. She took so long to crawl five metres onto the rock platform I wasn’t sure if she had the energy to make it. She found a pool of water deep enough to fit her head in and drooped it into the water. Falling asleep instantly in this uncomfortable looking position. Turtles often rest with their heads underwater. The first time I saw this I was worried, would the turtle drown?! Then I felt silly, of course not, these animals are used to sleeping underwater. It probably helps them cool down and feels familiar when they’re out of their natural environment. Green turtles can hold their breath for around 6 hours when resting.

a turtle sleeps on the rocks with only its head dipped underwater in a rock pool
Monday? Monday.
A turtle looks at the turtle asleep with its head in a rockpool on the way past
That friend that never gets up on time…

The tide was coming in so I left her to snooze and continued along the beach. Soon I arrived at my favourite spot, a rockpool about knee deep and five metres squared. There were two shell shaped rocks submerged in the rockpool. One of the rocks started swimming around and on getting closer the other was clearly turtle shell patterned where it was wet at the edges. This turtle was motionless and clearly asleep. She didn’t move the entire time I was there, instead she waited for the tide to come in and swam off once fully submerged. A lot of turtles use this tactic to avoid dragging themselves over the rocks, instead calmly resting in any water they can find. I’m not sure how they know the tide is coming in. I watched the water move in over the rocks near my feet, almost as fast as I could walk.  The other turtle was swimming around, looking to be enjoying itself. She moved into a deeper part of the platform closer to the ocean and kept swimming around. Eventually she slipped over the edge and was gone. It’s always nice to watch them return to where they belong.

The top of two turtle shells poke above the water in a rockpool
Competitors in the infamous turtle or rock game
Side view of a turtle entering the water, a wave breaks midway over its body
Turtle heading out through a wave, flippers out perpendicular to its shell
I’m freeeeeeeeee! That Friday afternoon feeling.

This week we also had a behind the scenes tour of the local aquarium. One of the aquarists was training to become a local volunteer for the Ningaloo Turtle Program and had offered to show us around. The aquarium was very new and only had one main display tank. It stretched from the floor to the top of the second storey and was about three metres in diameter. It contained live corals, over 80 reef fish species and a painted crayfish. Most of the fish and corals are collected from the west coast by collectors with permits. The fish were constantly moving. Even clownfish and humbugs which in the wild stick around an anemone were swimming freely because they realised they had no predators. With so many species it was a flurry of colour and shapes. Some were hard to spot, like the yellow boxfish, and the tiny toby. Others, like rabbit and butterflyfish moved near the glass, picking algae off the window sills. The aquarist clearly loved his charges and told us stories about the fish. Like the cheeky wrasse that moves rocks and small corals when he adds them to the tank. And the crayfish stealing tools when he dives in the tank to clean the glass, dragging them under the rocky outcrop.

Dark maroon clownfish with a black background, shot in the aquarium

We went out the back to see the quarantine tank. This is necessary as fish are collected from the wild and are kept separate for observation or treatment before release in the main tank. There were two wobbegongs the size of my forearm and a blue spot stingray out the back, waiting for their lagoon style tank to be built. The ray kept surfacing, swimming straight up out of the water.  Having people standing over the tank is what happens during its feeding time, shame I didn’t have a snack for him. We saw the coral tank where new fragments were being separated. For every piece of coral collected for the display tank a fragment is kept to produce more. There are fish in here which don’t get on with others or are good at eating algae or copepods, keeping the coral healthy. They were also trying to grow fragments suspended from fishing wire. This allows the water to move around them and they grow better from each side, instead of sitting on a plastic plug. They had already grown over the fishing line so you couldn’t see how they’d been attached, this is based on overseas experiments and are doing really well. It was great to have a peek behind the scenes but hard to justify the expense of this controversial new aquarium. Why look at these fish in one small tank when you were within driving distance of Ningaloo, a world heritage listed coral reef?!

A stingray pokes its head above the water along the side of its blue holding tank
Dinner time?!

Another day at Five Mile began similar to the last with three turtles resting on the rock platform. When I was photographing one, I heard two seagulls squawking behind me. One had something in its beak the other was trying to get. Taking a photo and zooming in on the screen I could see it was a turtle hatchling. It was flopped unnaturally upside down with its flippers dangling limply. It was dead, this was my first glimpse of a hatchling at Ningaloo. I followed the volunteer I was with up into the dunes. She showed me a nest that hatchlings had emerged from the day before. It was just a small funnel-like depression in the sand, no larger than a saucer in diameter. It was hard to imagine over a hundred baby turtles had come through this tiny area. Around the depression hatchling tracks spilled in every direction. Seagull footprints covered the sand, not many hatchlings could have escaped. There were three dead hatchlings near the nest depression. They were all smaller than my palm in length and looked so fragile. Little broken bodies scattered on the sand. The white edge on their flippers helped me identify them as green turtle hatchlings. They were starting to smell, I wonder if we’d just missed them hatching. Burying them I flipped one over and saw a hole in the top of its head. Probably where a seagull had pecked it. These birds are so wasteful not eating every hatchling they kill. It’s no wonder all the volunteers dislike seagulls so much, even though they are a natural predator.

turtle hatchling tracks spreading out in every direction from the nest depression
In the centre of the photo you can see the nest depression all the hatchlings emerged from
a dead hatchling lies in the sand, body broken and drying in the heat
Sad sight – to distract yourself look for the white flipper edge to identify this as a green turtle hatchling

We began the volunteer’s farewell by heading to town beach for nibbles, drinks and a swim. It looked like it was about to storm, we heard thunder on the horizon. Back on shore we formed teams and did another trivia session before heading to a local brewery for pizza and farewells. Five weeks had passed by so fast, I only had one week left here myself!

A turtle face on, peeking out above the waterline
I’m a Jaws! Doo-DUM Doo-DUM!

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 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!

Exploring Ningaloo – week 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road Tripping: Perth to Exmouth – Part 2

Kalbarri to Exmouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two sets of footprints on yellow sand
Goats and emu tracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is the trail?” They asked,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

News on Ningaloo

I am super excited to share some news – I’m going to Ningaloo!!! I’m incredibly lucky to be offered a team leader role on the Ningaloo Turtle Program. This two month internship will see me acting as a Communications and Media Team Leader. I’ll spend eight weeks with the other three leaders, 12 external volunteers and local volunteers patrolling the beaches near Exmouth from 5am each morning. We’ll be looking at turtle tracks and trying to identify nests. When all this data is compiled it gives the WA Parks and Wildlife Service a lot of information for managing the local turtle population. Over time this dataset combines to paint a picture of how turtles use the Ningaloo Coast, which informs conservation actions.

I’ll be staying in Exmouth, which is quite far up the West Australian coast. If you drew a line across the country you’d end up halfway between Rockhampton and Mackay in Queensland! Exmouth is on the eastern side of the North West Cape, so from town you look across the Exmouth Gulf back at the Australian mainland. A road runs north from Exmouth, around the tip of the cape and back south down to Yardie Creek. Along the way you enter Cape Range National Park and just off the beach is the fringing, nearshore Ningaloo Reef. This means to go snorkelling I can just drive to the beach, hop in the water and swim offshore.

Now when you say Ningaloo everyone thinks whale sharks. Every year 300-500 of these massive creatures congregate at Ningaloo following the annual mass coral spawning and seasonal nutrient upwelling which drive increased production of their food – plankton. Unfortunately, I won’t be at Ningaloo during the whale shark season (March – August) but there is still plenty to see.

The area is also known for its cave systems, with the highest cave fauna diversity in Australia, including rare aquatic species in flooded caves. If that wasn’t enough, the Cape Range Peninsula is recognised as an area rich in bird and reptile species and home to 630 flowering plant species. The Cape Range National Park is a rugged landscape of gorges, sheer cliffs and is home to emus, perenties (goannas) and the threatened black-footed rock wallaby. Then, there’s the nearby Muiron Islands known for incredible diving with potato cod, nurse sharks and swim throughs. Maybe two months isn’t enough time to see it all!

Looking at the Ningaloo Visitor Centre Wildlife Calendar, I’ll be there during the peak turtle nesting season (surprise surprise), the end of the Humpback whale migration and peak manta ray period. On the downside, Exmouth will be extremely hot when I’m there (over 40 degrees Celsius most days!) and in the middle of the tropical cyclone season. But what’s an adventure without some challenges. I can’t wait to explore the Ningaloo Coast and meet the critters that call it home. But first join us both as we go on a road trip from Perth to Exmouth. We can’t wait to share what we discover along the way!