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Sea Turtle Hatchlings Making The Race To The Ocean
Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) hatchlings making their way to the ocean.
Photo credit: Simone Bosshard

Sea turtle hatchlings making the race to the ocean

Just after the new year here at Gnaraloo, the internet went on holiday. It did not tell anyone, where it was going, or for how long, and with no phone service here, we spent quite some time just living in our little bubble of desert, ocean and turtles. About three weeks into our internet detox a print-out of an email mysteriously made it’s way into cabin two. The print-out informed us that the two turtles we had satellite tagged earlier in the season had returned to Gnaraloo Bay to nest again, and we could expect them to nest in the next three nights. Very keen to see our “babies” again, Simone and I decided to go out on Night Survey that evening. Another driving factor for missing a night of sleep was that some of our Sampled Nests were due to hatch, and having never worked a nesting beach before, seeing one would be a first for me. Having said this, we’ve had a relatively cool summer, which would lend it self to longer incubation periods. So while still optimistic, I did not get my hopes up too much.

Not having been on Night Surveys for over a month, I had to remind my-self of the protocol and that perhaps I would not need to pack my hat and sunglasses. Once properly attired, we made our way to the beach and began our peaceful and dark walk. It was not long before we came across our first turtle. We stood quietly and watched her emerge. From a distance, she had no signs of being one of our satellite turtles, but we were excited all the same. It had been over a month since we had been out on Night Survey and I really missed it. There is something fantastic about being on the beach at night and something even more fantastic about having the privilege to watch turtles nest on the beach at night. We sat and waited as she made the slow trek up the beach. Simone then crawled up for a closer look and came back with a great big smile on her face, “It’s Baiyungu” (the second of our satellite tagged turtles), she said. Once the turtle had settled into nesting, we checked to see how our handy work had help up. The satellite tag was still fixed securely to her carapace, and the large B we had painted on her shell still brightly showed. She laid a total of 119 eggs and we left her to camouflage her nest.

We continued along the beach checking nests as we went, all appeared dormant, until we reached Sampled Nest stake number 35. There was a small depression in the sand in front of the stake and some ghost crabs (Ocypode convexa) digging around it. Simone touched the surface of the depression to see if the sand was soft, a sign of a nest hatching. For the second time that evening she turned to me with a great big smile, and she excitedly whispered the words “there’s a baby”. Like some sort of possessed person, I just sat, right then and there, and stared at the sand. Simone graciously left me in my trance state to continue the survey, so that no mother turtles were missed.

Much like the saying; a watched pot never boils, a watched nest, takes quite some time to hatch. It was almost an hour later (and I don’t think I moved that whole time) when a tiny, little nose poked through the surface of the sand, followed by two impossibly small flippers. I quickly radioed Simone and she was only about 50 m away and ran up to the Nest to watch with me. We walked each side of the hatchling as it made what seemed like an impossibly far journey for something so unbelievably small. At the waters edge, the first small ripple of water came up to the hatchling and all of a sudden there was a flash and it disappeared. It was a crab, we turned on our lights, and chased it down. Simone picked up the crab and shook it until it’s big claws released, and it dropped the hatchling. Only one had come out of the nest and it was our first, so we had to make sure it made it to the ocean. This time we paid closer attention to the hatchling and watched until it had well and truly swum away. Safe to say it was a successful night and well worth the loss of sleep.

As it would happen, my luck with hatchlings would not run out there. To date, during my Day Surveys, I have seen hatchlings from a total of 7 Nest, with between 1 and 40 hatchlings emerging and making the race to the ocean each time. And each time I run back and forth shooing away crabs and birds like a grandma with a broom. While I have yet to see a full nest hatch (this is usually around 100 hatchlings emerging at the same time), I feel incredibly privileged to have been a part of and witnessed, something that most people will never see in their life time. Each day I continue to keep my fingers crossed that I will see a full nest before the end of the season.

Written By Tess Concannon

Sea turtle nest hatching at the Gnaraloo Bay Rookery, Ningaloo Coast, Western Australia

Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) hatchlings emerging from a nest during morning survey.
Photo credit: Tess Concannon

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