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Mysteries of the Kimberley’s flatbacks studied at EcoBeach

Two years ago in 2008 Conservation Volunteers Australia began to study the Australian flatback sea turtles that nest at EcoBeach, south of Broome on Roebuck Bay in the Kimberley. For the first time ever, staff and volunteers patrolled the beach during the peak nesting season for 40 nights in November and December. Volunteers trained and guided by CVA marine species manager Glenn McFarlane and his staff — who are approved and permitted by the Western Australian government — walked the 12 kilometers of beach from Jack’s Creek to the new EcoBeach Resort night after night looking for flatbacks.

Over the past two years numerous nesting females were tagged for the first time and DNA taken to determine their lineage. And  in 2009/10 satellite transmitters were attached to two turtles, both named Lucy, but that’s another story. Where they go and what the DNA testing finds will shed light on the mystery of these Kimberley flatbacks that has never been known before.

While this uniquely Australian sea turtle has been nesting here for millenia, they were perhaps simply forgotten by the public and the world because it wasn’t that remarkable. People had seen sea turtles nesting at Eco Beach, 80-mile beach to the south and the famous Cable Beach at Broome for as long as anyone could remember. It wasn’t surprising or unusual to see a flatback or other sea turtle come up to nest or a clutch of hatchlings clamoring by when down at the beach to watch a sunset or campout.

So until now, there has been no long-term study to determine the status of this flatback population – or any in the Kimberley for that matter. CVA has stepped in thanks to the expertise and passion of Glenn who has spent years working with leatherbacks in Costa Rica. His leadership has also helped establish citizen science projects at Cable Beach and 80 Mile Beach to get estimates of these well-known, yet little understood marine turtles.

I was fortunate to be traveling in Broome when Glenn and his team went back to EcoBeach in February to exhume nests and assess success rates. Unearthing data loggers tracking sand temperatures was another primary task. So for three very hot, though blessedly windy, days we dug up nests, counted eggs and recorded our findings. The hard-working team dug by day and relaxed at night as guests of the EcoBeach Resort. One night we even had the privilege of swimming in the lavish pool that overlooks the beach and ocean.

Sadly, we found that many nests had been washed away. A full report on the season will be released by CVA in the near future. But what I learned from my days with Glenn, Jo and Kerry was that this was important ground-breaking work that will provide new science on the Kimberley flatbacks that will help protect them for the long-term.

Another reason I was there was to see the EcoBeach Retreat, an amazing low-profile accomodation and complex built (and rebuilt due to cyclones) by eco-businessman Karl  Plunkett of Australia Eco Constructions. On a point of red rock above RoeBuck Bay and an incredible expanse of white sand and blue water, Karl has constructed an eco-vision with a touch of luxury. Humble, yet comfortable, brown two-to-four person safari-type canvass tents with room to stand(which have been ordered and shipped around the world)  sit among the dunes and native grasses. More luxurious eco-villas with air conditioning are positioned on the rises with ocean views. Solar panels provide much of the electricity supplemented with low-emissions diesel generators. Being a skeptic about just about anything that’s called “eco” now-adays, I was impressed with the overall commitment to green-ness by the EcoBeach Resort. I was also encouraged by the company’s support and commitment to sea turtle protection.

The combination of sea turtle protection and comfort is just too good for an activist and traveler like me to pass up. So watch for details of an STRP-CVA sea turtle monitoring volunteer trip in December 2010 during the peak of flatback season!