Recently published research on turtle watching in Exmouth by the public has found the following:
… investigated the interactions between visitors and turtles, showed that a third of encounters resulted in a disturbance. These results are considerably higher than disturbances recorded at other locations… The interaction study showed that almost all disturbances stemmed from non-compliant behaviour of turtle watchers, particularly torch-use and closeness to turtles.
These results indicate that despite visitors’ knowledge of the code of conduct, two thirds of groups continue to breach the code, emphasising the need for developing guided tours and better interpretation…
So please help us to look after the Gnaraloo turtles by sticking to the Gnaraloo Code for turtle watching when you are lucky enough to see turtles near or on the beach.
Code of conduct for turtle watchers
To behave responsibly near sea turtles and avoid causing unintended problems, please adhere to the following 2 key guidelines*:
1. NO GLOW, MOVE SLOW AND STAY LOW
Photography and torches must not be used as these discourage turtles from emerging on the beach, make nesting turtles return to the water and disorientate hatchlings. Turtle watchers should move slowly and crouch low to the ground when near turtles to avoid disturbing the nesting.
2. STOP, DROP AND BECOME A ROCK
When near a turtle, stop (where you are), drop (slowly to the ground) and become a rock (stay still like a rock). If you follow these guidelines, you will not jeopardize the egg laying and hatching processes.
Details follow of current best practice for turtle observation in Western Australia, by which you are expected to abide when observing the Gnaraloo turtles:
• Walk along the beach just below the high tide mark, near the water (so the tide will wash foot prints away) looking for tracks in the wet sand or for turtles. Do not approach turtles that are leaving the water, moving up the beach, or in the early stages of nesting.
• Walk in a single file along the beach (rather than abreast of each other) in order to minimise visual impacts and distress caused to turtles emerging from the sea.
• Do not use any form of lighting in any circumstances (including ‘white’ or ‘red’ torch light). Some turtle species found in WA, including Hawksbills, are highly sensitive to light, noise and human presence and will abandon a nesting attempt at the slightest disturbance. Repeated disturbances can cause a turtle to release her eggs in the water. As these are critically endangered species, it is important that you comply with these guidelines, even if they seem extreme. While you may find it difficult to navigate the beach at first, your eyes will adjust to the dark within 15 – 20mins and it will become much easier to see. Do not worry about missing tracks without appropriate light, as they are very conspicuous in natural light.
• Avoid talking loudly, making noise and sudden movements at all times.
• When approaching a nesting turtle, stay at least 15m away. Always position yourself behind the turtle and stay low (sit, crouch or lie on the sand).
• You may crawl up behind a nesting turtle on your stomach (‘commando crawl’), but do not approach nearer than 15m.
• Be patient. The nesting process may take 20 to 40 minutes as she may abandon the nest and dig another one for a variety of reasons, including hitting an obstacle or the sand being too dry.
• Wait until she has commenced laying her eggs before moving any closer. She will be still and quiet when laying her eggs – if sand is spraying, if she is using her flippers or making noise, she is not yet laying her eggs. Only 3 people at a time, staying at least 2m away, may move closer to her once she is laying her eggs. It may take her 10 – 20 minutes to lay her eggs.
• Give her enough space to camouflage the nest. Stay at least 2m away from her at all times. It may take her 20 – 40 minutes to camouflage the nest.
• Let her return to the ocean without interruption or getting between her and the ocean. Stay at least 2m away from her at all times. It may take her 5 – 10 minutes to reach the ocean.
• At all times, stay behind the turtle. If necessary, you should change your position so that you are never within the turtle’s field of vision.
All the processes that a hatchling endures from the time it hatches from its egg, to emerging from the nest and making its way to the ocean are important to its development. It is extremely important that hatchlings are not handled or interfered with in any way during this time. Doing so will interrupt the completion of various developmental stages of the hatchling, thereby threatening its chances of survival. When hatchlings are observed to hatch from a nest or are encountered on the beach you should:
• Stand back from the nest – do not compact the sand in the nest area. This will make it more difficult for hatchlings to emerge from the sand and may even trap them.
• Do not use lights as this disorientates the hatchlings.
• Do not get between the hatchlings and the ocean, stand on the side.
• Let the hatchlings make their own way down the beach. Hatchlings can get stuck in footprints so stand to the side rather than crossing their path.
Interfering with turtles
All sea turtles are protected in Western Australia under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950. Any activity that may interfere, disturb or harm sea turtles may be illegal if conducted without approval. If you observe any activities which you consider are of concern, please report this to the Department of Environment and Conservation.
* Source: Spread the turtle word, Department of Environment and Conservation, 2008