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Stranded sea turtle at the Gnaraloo Bay rookery

Turtle out of water

Night surveys were well underway, and turtle activity on the beach had started to pick up. This meant that our Night Surveys involved less trudging back and forth, up and down, and more watching turtles nest, taking their measurements and flipper tagging, with emphasis on the flipper tagging part. In my previous turtle work I had not had the opportunity to flipper tag. Flipper tagging was new to the program this year and we are all excited about the information it could provide us on our nesting females.

Simone and I were on Night Survey and we had had a reasonably busy night. We came across a female we had already seen attempting to nest on the beach on previous nights, which was already tagged and was missing her back right flipper. We had very unoriginally but affectionately named her Stumpy. When we came across her she was digging her egg chamber. Turtles use their back flippers, which are surprisingly dexterous, to dig out their egg chambers. They alternate between flippers, neatly scooping out the sand, which is one of my favorite parts of nesting to watch. We were concerned that with her missing flipper she would not be able to make an egg chamber. But upon closer inspection she had created the perfect egg chamber. We sat with her while she laid and took our measurements, happy that she had been able to nest. A few hours and couple of turtles later we started to head back to the car. But along the way we spotted a track which went up quite a steep dune. We crawled up to investigate, hoping the turtle had reached the top of the dune, realised that it was not the best place to nest and had headed back down. Unfortunately, I have come to learn that turtles, especially nesting females, do whatever they want, despite what the science says. On the other side of the dune was an even steeper drop with a turtle at the bottom, unsuccessfully trying without success to climb back up the dune she had fallen down. We watched and waited, hoping she would be able to get herself out of the trouble she’d gotten into.

As time passed we became acutely aware that we would have to leave soon in order to be back in time for the day survey team to take the car out. Neither of us wanted to leave her where she was as she continued to try, without success, to climb the sandy slope. We had to take her measurements anyway and thought that perhaps in the process we could try to help her. She was the first turtle that I got to tag, and I was determined to see her get back to the ocean. Simone and I put all our effort into trying to both lift and push her up the steep slope, but at over 100 kg, she was not budging. Sandy and exhausted, Simone and I reluctantly left the beach, after spending 8 hours out on survey and 2 of those trying to, for lack of a better description, wrestle a turtle. When we returned to the homestead the day team were waiting, slightly concerned that we were so late. We told them of our turtle and hoped that with three of them they could get her back to the ocean, or that even maybe she had managed to find a route home. 6 am and completely exhausted I crawled into bed and restlessly slept, waiting to hear what had become of my first tagged turtle.

Sea turtle, Gnaraloo Bay, Western Australia

The Rescue:

Megan and I were on the beach that morning, but Skip tagged along so I could practice training others in track identification. It was 5:30 am, thirty past when we usually leave, there was no sign of the Night Survey girls, and no one had ever been late before. We worried they had gotten bogged or the car had broken down somewhere but Skip held out faith that it was just a busy turtle night for them. Sure enough, he was right and when they showed up they looked beat – sand in every crevice and smiles long past gone, they shared the story of the stranded turtle. Tess C. looked at me with eyes full of fear and said, “I will not be okay if my first tagged turtle dies – you save that thing okay?”… and so I did. Megan was on the top section of beach so she came across the turtle first. She radioed in and told me the turtle had made quite the journey since Tess C. and Simone had left her but was on her way to the right direction (in the southern parts of the United States we call this fixin’ to be the right direction). Megan took some more measurements to match them up with the night team and continued to finish her survey section.

Skip and I arrived 20 minutes later to find a very stuck turtle trying to climb a mountain of sand in the wrong direction. We both assessed the situation and came to the conclusion that the only way to get her to the place she needed to be was to put her there ourselves. We walked behind her, more or less guiding her forward, to the smallest part of the dune. With two hands on either side of her carapace and with four big heaves we picked her up and finally got her to the top of the dune. I always find it hard not to anthropomorphize animals, but I swear that turtle pushed off the dune, picked up her flippers, and sledded right down to the ocean’s edge. It was only after the turtle entered the water that Skip and I looked at each other and said, almost at the same time, “Did you take her measurements?”.

Since this day we’ve all experienced 8, or 9, even 12 hour night surveys full of turtles and arrived home almost too late for morning survey to get out on time. Each time this happens, I fear that our stranded mama has returned for more dune climbing adventures but alas, we are still awaiting the return of Tess C’s very first tagged turtle.

By: Team Tess (Concannon and DeSerisy)

Skip guiding the stranded turtle to the top of the dune.


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