Life and death on Bare Sand

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2000, 12:00am

ON A MARINE navigation map, Bare Sand Island is just what it promises. A kilometre or so of white sand just off the northern coast of Australia, with a single tree marked. A cartoon island for comic castaways.

In reality it boasts three trees - casuarinas planted 20 years ago - and an importance in the world eco-map quite out of proportion to its physical size.

Bare Sand Island is a major nesting site for some of the grandest old turtles in the southern hemisphere. Ancient creatures a metre long who, though endangered, tend to end up all too often on Chinese banquet tables, being shipped into Hong Kong by the container-load.

There is little that can be done - from the Australian side at least - about the turtle trapping, which happens mostly in Indonesia. But in the hope of learning how to increase the world's turtle population the University of the Northern Territory in Darwin is carrying out studies about the nesting habits of these flatback turtles whom - they believe - return time and again to the same nesting sites.

And they are getting tourists to help out, in a dramatic, all-night, eco-tourism adventure that was launched in June by NT Wilderness Expeditions. The price is on the expensive side, at A$200 (HK$825) including meals and sleeping bags if needed, but profits go towards the research programme, so tourists are helping both financially and practically.

I meet my group of six paying eco-volunteers at Cullen Bay, a new, chic marina complex a few minutes from downtown Darwin. Our guide is Tim Lucas, a 21-yearold biology student who does this in his spare time. 'It's my dream job,' Lucas says happily, as he packs his swag (sleeping gear) into the hold of the Lazy Girl fishing boat. She is named after one of the turtle mothers-to-be who apparently needed a helping hand back to the water - a feat which tried the strength and ingenuity of all the volunteers on the tour that night.

It is a three-hour journey along the coast from Darwin to Bare Sand Island - past stretches of water where dugongs and dolphins play in the waves.

When we arrive it is mid-afternoon: too early to see turtles who hatch and lay eggs only after dark, when the babies have more chance of escaping hungry birdlife, and the females can do their egg thing in private. So before we start 'work', Lucas takes us around the island, pointing out the place where - near the mangrove of the next piece of land - there is a rather vicious male salt-water crocodile, or 'salty'.

'Don't swim on this bit of the beach,' he warns. Most of our group don't want to swim on any part of the beach, although three of us do take a brave dip on the other side of the island, careful not to go further into the Timor Sea than our waists. Between the great white sharks and the great crocs, this is hardly swimmer's paradise.

This - and the surrounding flat islands and peninsula - is owned by the Laraka Aboriginal people. One of our group, Amy, is 16 and part Aboriginal. As one of the traditional owners of the land, and an animal lover, she is curious to see how the turtles nested.

She hopes to be apprenticed on to the tour programme so she can help promote ecological enterprises in her country.

As the sun begins to set we begin to look for tracks. There are two very different kinds to be found: the large sand ridges created by the flippers of the heavy mother turtles making their way slowly up the beach to dig a nest, and the tiny bird-like patterns made by the babies as - seven or eight weeks later - they trot down to the ocean to begin their life.

The university staff and students organise all the tagging and radio-tracking mechanisms involved in turtle research, Lucas explains. But what the project also needs, which is why we are there, is people to count the eggs that have hatched and have not hatched, and to see how many mothers are nesting every night.

The turtles are mysterious creatures. What is known is they have a life span similar to humans - 80 years or more - but the females only reach sexual maturity when they are 40 or so. It is also known that the turtles swim for thousands of kilometres every year, guided perhaps by electro-magnetic fields in the Earth's atmosphere.

It is believed that the mothers always return to the same spot to nest, which means that when a beach is developed, those turtles - fearful even of a light on the beach - are unable to reproduce.

It is also believed to be important for the hatchlings to walk all the way from their nest to the beach, perhaps to develop their muscles before they begin to swim, or perhaps to remember, somehow, how to find their way 'home' when they want to nest.

Within 10 minutes we find our first nest: the babies had hatched the night before and their flipper-marks lead from there to the sea. Lucas starts to dig for the empty burial chamber and then suddenly stops and feels gently through the soft sand. 'Watch this,' he says.

And we watch and see a tiny miracle. There is an almost imperceptible movement in the sand, and then a little head appears, followed by a body covered with a soft baby shell the size of a human hand. 'This one didn't make it last night, probably got trampled by the others,' he says. We put it into a wet canvas bag to wait until nightfall, and he invites us to try feeling around further. Another, and another turtle emerges, followed by one with a crumpled shell, which probably wouldn't make it past supper for a hungry fish.

Then we are shown how to dig for the hard sand around the chamber - about 30 or 40 centimetres below the sand surface - and pull out the remains of the eggs, with their soft coverings the approximate size, colour and shape of ping-pong balls. There are about 50 of them, including a couple of unfertilised, rotten ones.

As night falls we return to the camp ('just put your sleeping bags anywhere on the sand'), eat a simple barbecue and salad meal, compare brief life histories, and discuss the wonder of the turtle birth.

Throughout the night - until finally falling asleep for a couple of hours at 4am under the stars on the sand - we patrol the beach. Four mother turtles come up in the evening to lay. While they are digging their nests we sit quietly in the dark, but during laying they are in a trance, and we watch the ping-pong eggs popping down in ones, twos and threes into the cavity.

As they prepare to return to the deep, we check them for tags and scars, and hold these female dinosaurs for a moment, tucking their skin folds under their huge shells, to measure them accurately with a tape.

But it is the baby bit we - born-again turtle midwives all - enjoy most. We find maybe a dozen in five different nests. Each has to be led down to the sea, following the beam of our torches. I take one right down to the waves, trying not to think of that hungry salty in the nearby mangroves. It is low tide and the turtle and I walk for what seems like 50 metres in the dark, the torches of the others at the nest site disappearing behind the low dunes.

I keep thinking I've lost my little charge, and then suddenly I hear the pitter-patter of tiny flippers and there it is, padding down towards me with tremendous determination.

I have never in my life felt so maternal as when that ninja baby walks into the waves and bravely begins its long journey. 'Go far,' I tell it silently, 'be strong, and please, please don't end up on a dinner table in Guangzhou.'

NT Wilderness Expeditions Turtle Research Tour: Tel: 1300 656 071