Flatback Turtle Monitoring

Care For Hedland’s community-based turtle monitoring program was established in 2004 to provide a much-needed role for the awareness and conservation of the local threatened Flatback sea turtle species Natator depressus. The presence of Flatback turtles in Hedland gives a unique opportunity for the community and visitors to the area to be actively involved in contributing to the monitoring of the protected species. In 2010, Care For Hedland won the WA Environment Award Biodiversity Conservation for our Flatback Turtle Monitoring Program.

Since 2008, Care For Hedland has been supported by Principal Partner BHP, who support the Morning Coordinator, Evening Coordinator and Evening Guide roles. Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) support our Scientific Coordinator role.

Flatback sea turtles nest only on Australian beaches and have the shortest migratory range of all sea turtles. There is currently limited population data available on the species, highlighting the importance of the Care for Hedland turtle monitoring program. This program is a part of a wider turtle monitoring project encompassing nesting rookeries from Shark Bay to the Kimberley.

The Hedland turtle monitoring program operates from November to March each year in correlation with the annual Flatback migration to the coastline for the nesting and hatchling seasons (nesting season: November – January and hatchling season: December – March).

The program uses a non-invasive approach to obtain monitoring data through conducting early morning beach patrols assessing turtle tracks and sand patterns. Laid and hatched nest locations are recorded using a GPS and additional turtle and predator activity is documented. This data is sent to the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions and joins a state-wide database which helps scientists to build a picture of Flatback turtle populations and nesting behaviour.

The turtle monitoring program has two key goals.

To educate and bring awareness of the local flatback turtle species and encourage positive methods for human interaction with the species.

To collect data concerning flatback turtle activity at the Cemetery Beach and Pretty Pool Beach nesting sites that will be used to provide an indication of the nesting and hatchling populations at Hedland and to provide best guide management plans for the area.

Morning Monitoring

Between late October and March, we conduct turtle track monitoring every morning at 6am at Cemetery Beach and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Pretty Pool Beach. We walk along the previous night’s high tide line to look for fresh emerging and returning turtle tracks.

When we come across a track we determine which is the “up” and “down” track, confirm that it is a Flatback turtle track (as Green Turtles are found to feed on the reef) and then follow the return track to her last activity.

We need to use our investigative skills to determine whether the turtle has successfully nested or whether she has “false crawled”. If she is unhappy with her choice of location, she may move and try somewhere else – sometimes leaving loops and criss-crosses all over the beach! As the season progresses, determining a successful nest can be increasingly tricky as there are hundreds of nests on the beach.

We add the data to our tablet and cross the track off with a vertical line so the following day we know not to treat it as a fresh track.

Despite the early start it can get really hot and boy do the flies get annoying! But it’s a great way to start the day and there are often some cool things to see on the beach!

We take gloves and plastic bags to the beach so we can rid the beach of all the rubbish which has either washed up on shore or has been left on the beach by the public. Our volunteers are great at helping out with this!

We often find turtle egg shells on the beach. Sometimes they have been dug up by predators, such as foxes, goannas, dogs or cats. Sometimes they are fresh, still soft and bright white, suggesting that the turtle may have been disturbed and had released them due to distress.

A great thing about the morning monitoring is the opportunity to find hatchlings emerging from their nests. When walking at the edge of the vegetation it is important to watch your step as there are possibly hatchlings just below the surface, waiting to make their mad dash down to the water!

Out-of-town volunteers

Care For Hedland relies on out-of-town volunteers for the turtle monitoring program and we encourage all to apply. For more information, see our Volunteer Information Pack 2023-2024 and email your completed Volunteer Application Form 2023-2024 to our Environmental Association Coordinator at coordinator@careforhedland.org.au.

Volunteers can apply to be part of the program and start and finish anywhere between the 23rd of October and the 25th of January.

Join Care For Hedland staff and volunteers in protecting Port Hedland’s Flatback turtle population. Volunteers take part in community-based, scientific data collection. There are two aspects to the data collection – morning track counts and a 50-night tagging program. Volunteers do not need to have previous experience with turtles but a reasonable level of fitness is required to walk the beaches. Turtle monitoring can be hard work, as volunteers will be walking the beach in hot, humid conditions often at irregular hours as turtle work is tidal-dependent. The program has a great social aspect, as you will have the chance to explore a regional town and get to know townspeople and other volunteers.

Local volunteers

All Hedland residents are welcome to join our turtle monitoring program – even volunteering one morning a week is a huge help! Local volunteers can choose their own hours and days during the season. Complete the application form and send it through to coordinator@careforhedland.org.au.

If you would like to participate in the turtle monitoring season, please let us know! Email our Association Coordinator at coordinator@careforhedland.org.au for more information or to send a completed registration form.

We will hold a Turtle Volunteers Training Information workshop in late October 2023, ready for those who would like to learn, or refresh their knowledge and join in at the start of the nesting season.