Turtle season

Updated: Mar 7

For my first post, I thought I'd write about something happening right now on the Ningaloo, the turtle nesting season.

At the start of summer, green turtles arrive on the reef in large numbers, searching for mate and a place to lay their eggs. In fact, most of the time turtles actually return to the very same beach they hatched from years ago. The season really kicks off in November when the turtles are arriving and starting to mate and lay, this time of year is perfect to photograph the turtles from the shore, or even better with a drone as there can be literally hundreds of turtles just off the shore in the Cape Range national park. You shouldn't attempt to swim with these turtles, it will disrupt their mating.

Mating can be pretty overwhelming for the females, the male turtles go into a bit of a frenzy, quite often four or five males will attempt to mate with one female at the same time and she may not even be interested!

The females will actually haul themselves up onto the shore to escape the over eager boys... Visitors to the area are quite often surprised to find turtles up on the shore, but in general it will just be a fed up and tired female.

It's not uncommon for the turtles to be caught up in the heat of the moment and end up on the shore, this can be dangerous for the turtles as waves can flip them and they'll end up stuck until the tide comes up and rescues them, or a helpful human.

Nesting generally happens during the night time, if you're keen to see them laying, make sure you follow the guidelines and be respectful, it's important to only use red light and maintain a safe distance whilst the turtles are making their way up the beach.

Green turtle nests take around sixty days to hatch, and in my experience, I've had the best luck with spotting hatchlings in mid to late February. There's a number of beaches along the coast with covered in nests and from the end of January right into April you have a chance to find hatchlings.

The nests hatch when the sand is coolest, so most of them during the night, but usually you can find some around sunset and sunrise. I quite often go looking for hatchlings and see people arriving at the beach then sitting down and waiting for the turtles to appear, unsurprisingly that doesn't work. You need to walk up and down the beach actively looking for nests to find an eruption. Greens are also pretty quick off the mark, once they wake up they don't hang about and it's over pretty quickly, so you need some luck and to be in the right place at the right time.

One of the best ways to find them, is actually through their predators. Sea gulls can cover ground a lot quicker than we can and they're much better at spotting them. If you can see lots of them swooping, theres a good chance they've found dinner and its time to get down the beach! For lots of people this is hard to watch, I've even seen people throwing stones at the gulls, it may seem cruel but it is part of nature and they may be annoying when they steal your chips at the beach, but they are wild animals and don't deserve to be abused.

Green turtles aren't the only species which nest along the Ningaloo coast, if you're lucky you can also find hatching loggerheads. These guys have a much darker colouration, are a little smaller and much slower than the greens. As they're so much slower than the greens, they're much easier to photograph - if you can find some. Hawksbill turtles also nest along the coast, however they are even less common that loggers, so I'm yet to spot any.

When photographing the hatchlings I've used both a 100-400mm lens and a 200-600mm and I prefer the 100-400, it gives you the reach you need and has a closer focussing distance than the longer lens. If you have one I would reccommend using a similar telephoto lens, it lets you get nice close shots of the turtles, whilst maintaining a respectful distance. Its important not to disrupt the hatchlings, they already have the odds stacked against them with one in a thousand making it to adulthood, so the last thing they need is humans slowing them down!

I have also tried photographing flatback hatchlings on 80 Mile beach with a 90mm macro lens, although I found it wasn't focussing quickly and it was tricky with the quicker turtles. Another issue with a shorter lens is with soft sand you end up leaving quite big footprints in the turtles path and they can get stuck and up being even easier pickings for the seagulls.

Once the turtles reach the surf, they will start a 'swimming frenzy' and swim for hours and sometimes days until they are taken by oceanic currents and disappear for years before they are seen again. If they survive the 'lost years' they will make their way closer to land and settle on a near shore reef where they can feed and grow before migrating back to the beach they were born on to breed. It is also important not to help the hatchlings, as difficult as it is to watch a struggling turtle, some theories suggest that their frantic crawl to the ocean helps to imprint the location in the turtles memory so it can return to that beach to mate when the time comes.

Thanks for reading and happy turtle watching!

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