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Turtle watchers’ code of conduct

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

  • mating
  • nesting
  • hatching.

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.