Moving into our fourth and final month here in Gnaraloo, our daily routines have settled, changed, and settled again. We have learnt to juggle morning surveys, constant streams of work deadlines, and our blossoming social lives. At times when our minds are not totally consumed with turtle trivia, a glass of wine can often be found in our hands in celebration of time off, as we enjoy a game of Aussie-Rules football or a good book on the beach.
With each passing month, we have enjoyed slight changes to our surveying roster, which included Night Surveys throughout December and the addition of Gnaraloo Cape Farquhar Rookery (GCFR) morning surveys in January. While spring time is usually reserved for all things ‘cute’ and ‘baby’, we are well aware turtles work to their own schedule. Much to our delight January also brought the emergence of tiny hatchlings. Leaving the safety of their incubation chambers they made the daring journey towards the vast wilderness of the ocean, a place that is full of its’ own dangers. With the news of hatchlings, we were set to embark on our final adventure of Nest excavations a fortnight later.
Brimming with excitement throughout the season, Nests excavations have been a hot topic among the Scientific Interns. This would be the first season for the GTCP to excavate most of the Sampled Nests and we are going to be a part of it. Only occurring after the Nest hatched at the end of the season, Nest excavations aim to explore the answers to important questions such as: the fertility and success of our Nests and whether native predators, such as Ghost Crabs (Ocypode spp.), impact the nests.
The date of our first excavation arrived on the 5th of February, and with this momentous occasion we decided to undertake the excavation as a whole team. We even set aside an evening, so we could relax on the beach afterwards – if only we had known what Gnaraloo would have in store for us.
To set the ball into motion, we made sure that we were well prepped the evening before and after checking all of our equipment, we tumbled into the car and blasted the tunes on the way to the beach. Upon arriving at the designated Sampled Nest, Tess C. took the initial lead in digging for the egg chamber, as she was the least experienced and the first to step up to the gauntlet of solo excavations which were planned for the next day. The dig proved more difficult then expected and the unusually soft sand made it tough for Tess to make any head way, I soon jumped in to help her out, and before we knew it, the hole became deeper and deeper. We were elbow-deep in soft sand that seemed to be filling our pit just as quickly as we were scooping it out. With the others moving sand behind us and the two of us digging in the center, we started to make progress and as we were just about to dig our way through to China, we were hit with a stench. This wasn’t a unique stench, but a foul stench that could only be given to one category of things… dead things.
With the odour filling our nostrils, we finally knew that we were on the right track and indeed we soon uncovered our first hatchling. Completely mummified, the hatchling was the first of many to come. On any normal beach, we would expect the egg chamber to be a nice neat cylindrical shape containing all of the eggs – or at least, this is what we have experienced as turtle researchers with 10 seasons of nesting between us in Greece, Florida, Central America and across Australia. As always, Gnaraloo had to be different. In the end, we never actually found an egg chamber, instead only a few large collections of eggs located within the soft sand. Over the next hour, our pit grew ever larger as we excavated over 111 eggshells in varying conditions of hatching and decomposition. To complete the excavation, we needed to open any unhatched eggs and sort the eggshells into different categories: Emerged (alive hatchlings found above the egg chamber); Alive in Nest; Dead in Nest; Hatched (over 50 % of an eggshell that has hatched); Unhatched (fertilised eggs with an obvious embryo); and Unfertilised. Finishing off our excavation, we placed all the contents of the egg chamber back into the massive pit that we had created and covered it with sand. Exhausted but elated, we started heading back to the car – our first excavation had been a hard-earned success!
It is at this point that I am eternally grateful for the unexpected surprises given to me by the natural world. Laughing and joking with each other, we slowly made our way back along the beach. Suddenly and without any warning, Heather and Simone stopped in their tracks, telling the rest of us to hush whilst pointing further up the beach. Incredibly, right there at the top was a giant nesting female Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta).
It was later in the evening than any of us had realised, but that was of little concern as we entered the golden hour and with the sun stretching its golden yellow rays across the ocean’s surface, none of us were in a hurry to leave. Together, we watched as this majestic creature lay her untarnished, white eggs into the flawlessly sculpted egg chamber below. As unapologetic scientists, we reached for our tape measures and checked for flipper tags (she had already been tagged by us in December), whilst she covered and camouflaged her picture-perfect nest. All too soon, she blissfully returned towards the world she knows much better than me, and I wondered if this would be the last female that I would have the pleasure to see this season, and if it was… it was kind of perfect.
As we continued down the beach chatting and telling stories of times gone by, we were soon to discover that the night had not fully come to an end just yet. With ghost crabs scuttling beneath our feet and gulls swooping in mid-air, Heather emitted a cry ‘That’s a hatchling!’.
We had just reached our turn off on the beach that would take us back to the car and yet, there it was. A ghost crab was holding up a tiny hatchling, like Golem with his precious ring, not willing to be separated with his pride and joy. After tackling the crab, the hatchling (still very much alive) was returned on his journey towards the ocean and to our surprise, another little hatchling was discovered already marching on his long and dangerous voyage in the same direction. Locating the source of the emerged hatchlings at one of the nearby Sampled Nests, Team Tess (Tess C and Tess D) stumbled upon their new roles as guardian angels for any future emergences. Two small, delicate little noses were soon starting to peak out through the sand, as the previous two little adventurers were actively being protected by Simone and I on their race to the ocean. Simone’s hatchling barely won our trivial competition as the last few rays of light peered over the horizon, coating everything in a deep musky orange glow. Returning to the two Tess’s, their two tiny hatchlings were just attempting to push out into the real world. This time, Heather and I walked with them as they stretched their flippers, safe-guarding them at least for this small distance in the long road ahead.
Astonished with our luck, we headed home in the near darkness to be greeted by some worried but friendly faces as we returned so late but with many stories to tell. Initially going out to start the next chapter of our Gnaraloo storybook, we experienced all three stages of turtle nesting right before our eyes and all in the company of each other. What a perfect way to spend the evening!
Written by Megan Soulsby