Unforgettable turtle surveying on Field Island

A  female’s tracks as she leaves the ocean, and returns | Field Island | Anja Toms

For a couple of years I’ve been thinking what an exciting and worthwhile experience it would be to participate in the annual flatback turtle surveys. Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity to join the survey this year – and the experience was everything I’d hoped for and more!

From Munmarlary boat landing, we travelled down the South Alligator River, arriving on Field Island’s only sandy beach at high tide, just after 8:00 am - and spent the day pitching tents and developing strategies to cope with the sandflies.

As the first evening watch began we carried our camping chairs down to the beach and waited for the full moon to rise. Watching the moon come up behind the mangroves was worth the trip in itself – but then the females began emerging from the sea, one after the other, 14 flatback turtles in total!

With all lights out, we watched from a distance while the turtles dug their body pits. In the moonlight we could see them fling the sand around with their flippers. Eventually they started scooping sand out of the egg chamber - arduous work!

Once the turtles started laying their eggs it was safe to approach them quietly. The turtles fell into a kind of trance and we were able to measure their carapaces, register barnacles, injuries, bite marks on their shells, check for flipper tags and PIT tags (microchips) and complete the data sheets.

Traditional owner Jonathon Nadji showed us how to best count eggs while ranger Steve kept an eye out for crocodiles.

Flatback turtle hatchlings make their way to the sea! | Anja Toms

Nights two and three were quieter, but on our last night a total of ten turtles kept us on our toes again. The absolute highlight was watching the hatchlings emerge from the nest, putting their little flippers into gear and making for the sea. It was unforgettably moving!

Hopefully some of them will eventually find their way back to Field Island to nest.

Anja, Kakadu National Park

Gardangarl (Field Island) is a critical habitat for flat back turtles and a key monitoring site in the Australian National Recovery Plan for Marine Turtles.

Every year teams of park staff and traditional owners camp on Gardangarl over a four week period to study the turtles as they come ashore to nest. The study helps us to better understand the species as well as monitor the impact of threats, such as climate change.

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