A camp on the western coast of Queensland’s Cape York gives travellers the opportunity to monitor and protect nesting turtles.
Story and photos Peter Morse
The list of creatures that prey on turtles throughout their life cycle is almost a who’s who of the animal kingdom in this part of the world, including goannas and a variety of birds and fish. They hunt them from the egg stage, when they are dug up from nests buried in the sand, to old barnacle-encrusted adults that are crunched by sharks and crocodiles. People have quite an impact too: turtles are still caught and eaten by humans and, unfortunately, the greatest threat facing these ancient creatures comes indirectly from mankind’s influence on the planet.
The western coast of Queensland’s Cape York is sheltered from the south-east trade winds for most of the year, and blazing white sand beaches stretch for hundreds of kilometres south of the tip. The beaches are backed by sand-dunes and, in several places, these extend inland for half a kilometre or more. This is ideal turtle-nesting country, with the females dragging themselves up the sloping beach to dig a hole and deposit their eggs before returning to the sea.
Cape York Turtle Rescue’s Camp Chivaree, or the Turtle Camp as it’s commonly known, is situated on Janie Creek, about 80km north of the mining town of Weipa and just south of the Aboriginal community of Mapoon, home of the Yupungathi people. The camp has been set up as a community project with Mapoon’s people. The concept is to isolate, monitor and protect at least one section of the coast for the nesting turtles, and the stretch of sand and dunes between Janie Creek and the Pennefather River called Flinders Beach was chosen for the site. Part of the vision of this project is to involve people from all walks of life as ‘volunteers’ for the hands-on work that needs to be done. To this end, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and various research institutions have become partners with the locals and tourists.
Volunteers pay to have a ‘holiday’ at the camp and help set Feral Pig Exclusion Devices (FPEDs) over newly laid nests; measure, tag and count nesting turtles; and clean up the beach of nets and all the other bits that drift in when the north-west monsoon winds blow during the wet season. This is important because the pig-infested swamps behind the sand-dunes, as well as the minefield of drifting nets in the oceans that have been discarded or lost by commercial fishing fleets, take their toll on the turtle population. “The pigs and the nets are the greatest threat turtles face,” says Peter McCulkin of the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Forestries’ Weipa office. “The pigs have learned to detect the turtle nests and make short work of developing eggs. They’re a rich source of protein. Piglets soon learn as well.”
The development of a pig exclusion device has been a core aspect of the project, but it has had mixed results since pigs are strong and they learn fast. A helicopter-based shooting campaign focused on the swamps at the back of the dunes has culled many thousands of pigs and predation from them has eased considerably. However, wild dogs, often cross-bred with escaped pig-hunting dogs, have moved into the feeding opportunity and have proven to be far more cunning. The dingo is a totem for some local families in this region, so a dog poisoning campaign is fraught with issues.
The nets are another issue altogether. “Before they wash onto the beach, the nets simply entangle the adult turtles and drown them,” says Camp Chivaree’s senior ranger Lawrie Booth. “These nets can be identified and are traced through their manufactured structure, the type and colour of string used, the mesh size and the style of knotting used. All these point to their origin and they come from half a dozen different sources, mostly Asian, and drift south with the monsoonal winds of the wet season.” Any nets on the beach are burned so they can’t be washed back out to sea.
There are four species of turtles nesting along this coast: flatbacks, hawksbills, green and the rare olive ridleys. They come in to nest during the dry season, usually on the dark of the moon or the full moon when tides are at their biggest. There’s plenty to do, and the volunteers help monitor nests, especially those of the olive ridleys. On a good night, and often in the early morning, hatchlings burst out through the sand, heading for the waters of the Gulf. The presence of humans at least helps keep the wild dogs at bay while the hatchlings flip-flop their way to the water.
Many of the visitors want to do much more than just spend time with the turtles. After the turtle work is done, some visitors go fishing, and either Lawrie or ranger Cecil Woodley can take groups on bush tucker foraging expeditions. Jabirus and brolgas hunt in the swamps and along the beaches, and thousands of migrating birds reside or pass by in spring and autumn. “We’ve found many are keen birdwatchers, and 81 different species of birds have been sighted in the area,” Lawrie says. “There’s a nesting colony of little terns right there on the point.”
The camp is well set up with comfortable twin bed safari-style tents on raised platforms and a central mess area. It is situated in the cool shade of a grove of casuarinas that whisper and sigh in the wind. On high tide at night, there’s the sound of splashing fish in the shallows, either hunting or being hunted. A wire fence protects the camp from the nocturnal wanderings of the prolific local saurian population. On introduction, visitors are told to “keep the bloody gate shut, this is crocodile country and swimming is out of the question”.
Janie Creek can be crossed in a tinnie to get to the Land Rovers that are rigged ‘safari style’ to travel the 30km of beach in relative comfort. One evening before setting out to travel, beach scientist Duncan Limpus jumps on a small saltwater crocodile that has been lurking around the boat loading area. It is eventually tagged and sent on its way. At night the rangers continue to warn, “There’s a croc close to five metres long that patrols this beach, so don’t go anywhere near the water at night when we’re working with the turtles”. The damaged shells of two torn-up adult turtles are a reminder.
The camp has become a popular getaway for Weipa residents, and Western Cape College sends their marine studies students to assist with research. The annual Cape York migration of adventurers sees a few call in, but most fly in to Weipa specifically to come to the camp. Most operations like this involve guests sitting back and watching rangers and scientists work but, at Camp Chivaree, visitors can contribute much more than money.
It is a holiday for those who don’t like to lie around in the sun all the time and enjoy getting their hands dirty doing something really useful. The camp is an oasis in what at times can seem like a desert. But like so much of this continent, the remote region actually teems with life once you take a closer look.
This story excerpt is from Issue #52
Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007