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Green turtle
Green turtle
Photo © Tourism WA

Six of the world’s seven species of turtles are found in WA waters:

All marine turtles in Australian waters are protected species at both State and Commonwealth levels.

  • Marine turtles have existed in the world's oceans for more than 100 million years.
  • These ancient mariners have cultural, spiritual and economic importance to coastal Indigenous Australians.
  • Turtles feature in many stories, ceremonies, traditions and contemporary activities of Indigenous people, and are often a food source in remote coastal communities.

Marine turtles generally live for a long time and are slow to reach sexual maturity—it can take between 20 and 50 years for a turtle to begin to breed. The only time they leave the ocean is when the adult females lay their eggs on beaches, and occasionally to bask during the nesting season.

Nesting

  • Male and female turtles return to the region where they were born to mate and nest, sometimes migrating thousands of kilometres between their nesting and feeding grounds—a mean feat when it may have been decades since they were last there!
  • Females nest every two to eight years, and lay between one and 10 clutches of 30 to 180 eggs. The number of eggs laid and the number of times a turtle nests in each season varies between species and between different populations of the same species.
  • When nesting, the female turtle slowly crawls up the beach, one to two hours on either side of the evening high tide.
    • She selects a nesting site based on the height above the high tide mark, sand composition and moisture content, then digs a pit using all four flippers.
    • She may abandon the site if she hits an obstacle or the sand is not moist enough.
    • After creating a body pit, she digs a vertical egg chamber with her hind flippers and lays the eggs, then covers them with sand, camouflages her nest and returns to the water.
  • Nest temperature, in the early stages of embryo development, determines the sex of hatchlings. The temperature must be between 25-33°C for the embryos to grow. If the nest temperature is towards the cooler end of this range the hatchlings are all male, while warmer temperatures produce female hatchlings.

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Marine turtle conservation

Marine turtle populations have declined in many places across the globe.

Threats to their survival include

  • entanglement in fishing nets, fishing lines and marine debris
  • consumption of marine debris
  • boat strikes
  • unsustainable harvesting
  • coastal development
  • disturbance by tourists
  • inappropriate 4WD vehicle use on nesting beaches
  • predation by introduced animals such as foxes and pigs
  • artificial lighting along the coast and on islands
  • sea level rise
  • climate change.

Parks and Wildlife monitors and protects marine turtles with the support of mining companies, fisheries companies, Aboriginal people, the community, the media and others.

  • Parks and Wildlife scientists, field staff and volunteers have engaged in marine turtle research since the late 1980's.
  • Project work has included the
    • tagging and release of tens of thousands of adult female turtles to assist in understanding their nesting habits, site fidelity, breeding longevity and migration patterns 
    • attaching satellite trackers to rehabilitated turtles, adult females and captive-bred hatchlings to monitor their movements
    • interaction with Indigenous people
    • discussions with industry and the involvement of the broader community in development of better environmental management solutions.
flatback measuring volunteers pic liz grant
Volunteers assist with monitoring flatback
turtles on Thevenard Island in the Pilbara.
Photo © Parks and Wildlife

North West Shelf Flatback Turtle Conservation

Flatback turtles are the only marine turtle species that nest exclusively in Australia. They are listed as vulnerable under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and as data deficient under the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Flatback turtles were only described as a separate species in 1988 from research undertaken in Queensland.

Western Australia’s Pilbara and Kimberley island and mainland beaches support significant nesting grounds for flatbacks.

The Northwest Shelf Flatback Turtle Conservation Program (NWSFTCP) is a 30-year, $32.5 million program that aims to conserve flatbacks in WA waters, at nesting beaches and throughout their range, which can include Commonwealth, Northern Territory and Queensland jurisdictions.

Research is still needed to define the abundance and distribution of the flatback population of the Northwest Shelf and work being done includes:

  • surveying, monitoring and research
  • reducing interference to key breeding and feeding locations
  • establishing information and education programs.

The NWSFTCP is one of two additional conservation programs required to be delivered by the Gorgon Joint Venture Partners as detailed in the Variation Agreement 2009 to the Barrow Island Act 2003.

Jurabi Turtle Centre
Jurabi Turtle Centre adjacent to
Ningaloo Marine Park
Photo © Parks and Wildlife

Community education

The Jurabi Turtle Centre, 13 kilometres from Exmouth, between Hunters and Mauritius beaches, is adjacent to a popular rookery. The centre, a collaborative project between the Shire of Exmouth and Parks and Wildlife, provides interpretive and educational displays on turtle biology and ecology, turtle viewing advice and ready access to turtle nesting beaches.

A short film on how to observe nesting marine turtles is shown at the Milyering Discovery Centre in Cape Range National Park during the turtle breeding season.

A nationally accredited Turtle Tour Guiding course has been established at Exmouth TAFE. Places are available from September each year with subsequent opportunities to obtain employment in the area. 

Turtle tagging program

Marine turtles are individually marked to provide information about

Loggerhead Turtle
Loggerhead turtle, Dirk Hartog Island
Photo © Kevin Crane
  • migration patterns and geographical ranges
  • inter-nesting and inter-breeding periods
  • clutch sizes, nesting site fidelity
  • changes in nesting population numbers.

Marker tagging programs have been conducted in Western Australian locations since the mid-1980s and continue at Dirk Hartog Island National Park in Shark Bay, Rosemary Island in the Dampier Archipelago, Barrow and Varanus islands off the Pilbara coast, and Cowrie Beach on Mundabullangana Station near Port Hedland.

The department works in partnership with Pilbara Iron, Woodside Energy, Chevron Australia, Apache Energy, The University of Western Australia and Mundabullangana Station.

Community beach-based turtle track monitoring

Community groups in Exmouth, Coral Bay, Wickham and Port Hedland monitor turtle nesting beaches.

Observers walk along defined sections of beach at sunrise every morning during the main nesting season and record:

  • the number of nests for each species
  • the location of the nests
  • the number of false crawls
  • the number of disturbed nests and the potential causes of disturbance.

Data is used to identify key nesting habitats, their relative significance, trends and management issues.

Community programs have several partners—Parks and Wildlife, Cape Conservation Group, WWF Australia, Commonwealth Natural Heritage Trust, Wildlife Link, Coastwest, Care for Hedland Environmental Association, West Pilbara Community Turtle Group, Pilbara Iron, MacMahon, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Threatened Species Network.

Volunteers are invited to assist with all these programs. For more information visit http://www.ningalooturtles.org.au or contact the local community representative:

  • Ningaloo Turtle Program, Exmouth – This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Care for Hedland Turtle Program, Port Hedland – This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • West Pilbara Turtle Program, Wickham – This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Cable Beach and Eco Beach Turtle Monitoring Programs Conservation Volunteers - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Aerial surveys

Aerial surveys along the Ningaloo-Carnarvon coast and along the Pilbara coast between Onslow and Port Hedland, including islands, are used to identify turtle rookeries, show the nesting abundance and indicate numbers.

How can you help?

  • Volunteer with a community based turtle conservation program.
  • Follow the turtle watcher's code of conduct.
  • Avoid driving your vehicle on turtle nesting beaches, as this can compact the sand near nests and create obstructions to emerging hatchlings.
  • Avoid using campfires or any artificial lights on nesting beaches, as this can disorient and disturb nesting turtles and hatchlings.
  • Use reusable bags instead of plastic bags—turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them, eventually starving to death.
  • Throw all your rubbish into the bin—turtles can get caught up in discarded fishing lines, ropes and other debris at sea and on the beach.
  • Do not buy or sell sea turtle products—this creates a demand for products that require hunting and killing turtles.
  • Drive your boat slowly to avoid injuring turtles in the water.
  • Record date, numbers, locations and species of marine turtles seen at sea or nesting.
  • Report all sightings of sick or injured turtles to the local Parks and Wildlife office.
  • Report any tag numbers sighted on turtles to the local Parks and Wildlife office or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Include date, location and information about the turtle—do not remove tags from live marine turtles.

Turtle watchers’ code of conduct

There are three important stages in the reproductive process of marine turtles:

If done correctly, marine turtles can be observed without undue disturbance to the breeding process.

If you would like to view nesting marine turtles it is recommended that you participate in guided turtle experience. By doing this you are actively helping to conserve marine turtles and will have a better opportunity to view marine turtles nesting in the natural environment.

flatback-hatchlings  
Flatback turtle hatchings
Photo © Andrea Whiting

Mating

Between September and December, female turtles are often seen resting at the water's edge close to mating areas.

During this time they are heavily stressed and extremely vulnerable to both natural and human impacts.

It is critical that female turtles are able to replenish their energy by resting on the shore and that NO disturbance to turtles occurs in these areas.

  • Go slow in marine turtle habitats and always drive your vessel with care to avoid injuring turtles.
  • Do not take motorised or sailing craft into mating areas. Paddle craft should also take care in areas where turtles are mating.
  • Dogs are not permitted in Cape Range National Park or Ningaloo Marine Park. Dogs should be kept away from turtle nesting beaches.
  • If a mating area is observed stand well back from the shore—at least 30 metres—so resting turtles are not forced back into the water prematurely.
  • Do not touch or disturb resting, sleeping or mating turtles. Making unnecessary contact with turtles is an offence.
  • Litter can harm all marine life, including turtles. Regulations prohibit vessels discharging waste, including litter or sewage, within a marine park.
  • Minimise any externally visible lighting onboard your vessel to avoid disturbing nesting turtles and attracting turtle hatchlings.

Nesting

Turtle watching is becoming increasingly popular.

To reduce the chance of disturbing turtles, increase their nesting success and support long term survival of the species, it is important to follow the turtle watchers' code of conduct below:

  • No glow - refrain from using torches to search for turtles. This discourages turtles from emerging and may make nesting turtles return to the water.
  • Move slow - turtles can detect sudden movements so move slowly at all times when on the beach.
  • Stay low - walk on the beach close to the water's edge. Stay low and out of sight of nesting turtles.
  • If you see a marine turtle nearby, "STOP" - where you are, "DROP" - slowly to a sitting position and stay very still like a "ROCK". Wait here until she has moved up the beach to begin digging.
  • Walk or sit on the beach in a tight group. The recommended group size for self guide visitors is five people.
  • Avoid excess noise.
  • Do not shine lights on turtles and avoid flash photography at all times.
  • When you can see sand being flicked into the air, stay at least 15 metres away.
    • When sand flicking has stopped you may approach a nesting turtle. Wait until she is laying before crawling up behind her on your stomach ("commando crawl").
    • Do not move closer than one metre behind her. She will be quite still when laying her eggs - if sand is spraying or she is using her flippers, she is not laying.
    • Always position yourself behind the turtle and stay low (sit, crouch or lie on the sand). If you are getting covered in sand as she digs YOU ARE TOO CLOSE!
    • Be patient. She may take time to rest or abandon the nest for a variety of reasons, including hitting an obstacle or the sand being too dry.
    • Let her return to the ocean unimpeded. Stand behind her at all times, no closer than two metres. Remember it is illegal to touch marine turtles.
  • Campfires are banned on nesting beaches—light can deter nesting turtles and disorientate hatchlings.
  • Do not litter on nesting beaches or anywhere within marine parks.
  • Please depart all nesting beaches by 11pm to allow a period of undisturbed nesting to occur.
  • Along with adhering to the above guidelines please ensure you have read the Code of Conduct Table (below).

Turtle nesting occurs in six stages. Times taken vary for each species – green turtles take the longest, and hawksbills are the quickest.

Stage of nestingIdentification of stageTime takenVulnerability to disturbanceTorch useDistance from Turtle

1.Emerging

Crawls from the ocean towards the dunes

5–20 mins

HIGH

No

Stay still – at least 15m away

2. Digging the body pit

Uses her front flippers to throw large quantities of sand behind her

20–40 mins

HIGH

No

Stay still – at least 15m away

3. Excavating the egg chamber

Uses her rear flippers only, creating a rocking motion as she digs

10–20 mins

MEDIUM

No

3 people at a time only.
At least 1m behind turtle

4. Laying eggs

Remains very still with a gentle heaving motion

3-10 mins

LOW

OK from behind if kept low and partially covered 1m from rear of turtle

Stay at least 1m away behind turtle

5. Covering and camouflaging the nest

Covers the nest and compacts the sand with her rear flippers only, then gradually moves forward throwing large quantities of sand behind her, using her front flippers

20–40 mins

LOW

No

Stay still - at least 2m behind turtle

6. Returning to the ocean.

Crawls from the dunes to the ocean

5–10 mins

LOW

No

Remain 2m behind turtle

Hatching

In natural conditions very few marine turtle hatchlings survive to adulthood. Additional, human induced pressures have further decreased their likelihood of survival. To minimise human impact on hatchlings:

  • do not touch or handle hatchlings
  • do not use any form of light or flash photography. This will disturb and disorientate hatchlings. Disorientated hatchlings are exposed to greater predation and risk of being stranded on the beach, where they will dehydrate and die.
  • do not disturb the nest
  • stand at least 1m away from the nest
  • do not compact the sand. Other hatchlings may still be in the nest waiting to emerge.
  • stand still when hatchlings are moving down the beach to avoid stepping on them.
  • allow hatchlings to move to the sea without disturbance or assistance. It is important that hatchlings make their own way to the ocean by using their flippers. This helps to exercise their lungs, allowing them to swim and dive when they reach the water. As a result hatchlings are able to relocate their nesting beach when they are mature enough to breed.
  • remain behind hatchlings at all times.
  • do not illuminate hatchlings in the water
  • do not drive your vehicle on turtle nesting beaches. Hatchlings become trapped in wheel ruts, greatly decreasing their chance of survival.

WA marine turtle symposium

Turtles have had a high conservation profile since the 1980s and research has expanded considerably over the years with numerous projects led by government, industry, university and community sectors. This increase in research and conservation activity has created a need to develop forums to allow people to interact and share knowledge. The Australian and Western Australian marine turtle symposia are such forums.

Reports of the proceedings of Western Australian marine turtle symposia: