Turning turtle

THE sound of waves crashing, a cool sea breeze and sand squishing between toes while ducking down to hide from a turtle - which may very well be a rock doing a great impression - that is just a few seconds of a Mon Repos turtle ranger’s night.

I recently had the opportunity to spend the nightshift with Mon Repos Conservation Park assistant ranger-in-charge Jae Milowski as she went about her duties.

Armed with wide-eyed and naive fascination, I was unprepared to hit the beach running.

A first-time nester had already made her way to the dunes and was preparing to lay as I stepped out of the car as the sun started to set.

Standing about 100m away from the turtle it was hard to look away — the shell gently rocking as she reached down, before a flipper appeared flinging sand into the air.

Soon I found myself crawling through the sand after Jae, careful not to disturb the loggerhead.

She seemed so peaceful as, one by one, she released the eggs, glossy and white, and with an uncanny resemblance to a ping pong ball.

It was time to record the data — mark out the nest, measure the carapace, record any blemishes and check for tags.

Halfway through the task, the first tour group arrived and Jae explained her actions, giving some facts about the turtle as she finished taking data.

“You just have to make it fun for them,” Jae said of the group.

“I don’t care if I say the same thing three times; at least they are asking questions.”

There were a few gasps of sympathy as Jae attached the tags for tracking purposes, despite her assurance the pain was similar to that of an ear piercing.

Soon the turtle was ready to return to the water.

It seemed like two minutes, but in reality the whole process took two hours. For the tour group it was over for the night, but for Jae and me the evening was just hotting up.

The beach was dark now — no lights allowed so the turtles are not disturbed.

I was only able to pick out a few shapes in the few flashes of lightning and intermittent lights on the beaches.

Jae, however, was as comfortable on the beach as at her own home, spotting turtles emerging from the water as we patrolled.

Later, as we sat waiting for a turtle to finish laying, Jae chatted to me about her job.

“There’s not a day where I wake up and think, ‘I don’t want to go to work’,” she said.

As the night wore on the radio chatter increased — chaotic to my untrained ear.

Rangers, researchers and volunteers logged the turtles.

“A lot of our job is co-ordinating what’s happening on the beach,” Jae said.

There are continual patrols along the beach – broken only by stopping to check the progress of a turtle – a necessity because of turtles intent on sneaking up behind an area just checked.

“You have to remember, they are female,” Jae said.

As I prepared to leave, a turtle who originally started nesting on the highest dune changed her mind, instead creating a nest in the beach area, meaning the eggs would need to be relocated.

Nest relocation includes digging a fresh hole to place the eggs in — there’s nothing quite like having clothes full of sand at midnight. As I helped carry the eggs to the new hole, the four white balls suddenly no longer resembled ping pong balls but something much more fragile and in need of protection.

“There’s not a day where I wake up and think, ‘I don’t want to go to work’.”



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