The remote wilderness areas of the west coast of Cape York are a dream trip for fishers, 4WDers and adventurers who love exploring off the beaten track. But it is also an important turtle nesting area.
Western Cape York lies on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria between Seisia and Karumba. It is stunningly beautiful country with white sandy beaches, red cliffs, breathtaking sunsets and the mouths of some amazing river systems.
However, this is also an important environment for some of the world’s most endangered sea turtles.
Every year thousands of sea turtles come to the beaches of the western Cape to nest. Peak nesting time is from July to October though turtles can nest at any time of the year.
types of turtles
There are two types of sea turtles that nest on the west coast of Cape York – the Flatback and the Olive Ridley.
Green and hawksbill turtles are also known to occasionally nest here but their numbers each year are very small.
This is a particularly important nesting area for flatback turtles, which nest only in Australia and are listed as a vulnerable species under Commonwealth and State legislation.
Australia’s, and therefore the world’s, most significant flatback nesting beaches can be found in the northern reaches of the western Cape, with thousands of turtles visiting these beaches each year to lay their eggs.
Flatback turtles spend their whole life on the continental shelf between Australia, southern Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
The other turtle that nests on the western Cape is the endangered olive ridley turtle, which is the smallest of the Australian sea turtles.
The olive ridley is thought to be the most numerous turtle species globally but there are concerns for the Australian population, which has been in decline over recent decades.
Olive ridleys are listed as Endangered.
Relatively little is known about the size of the western Cape populations of this species but it is thought that there may only be 100 females that nest in this region each year.
threats to nesting turtles
For most sea turtles the odds of survival are slim as it is estimated that only one in a thousand hatchlings make it to adulthood.
Their biggest threats on land come from feral pigs, wild dogs and goannas.
Indigenous park rangers in the region work hard to protect turtle nests by controlling the number of feral pigs and keeping predators away with plastic or aluminium mesh cages.
They also remove lost and discarded fishing nets from beaches to reduce the risk to nesting turtles and their hatchlings.
During the peak nesting time the rangers conduct regular patrols of the beaches and collect data, which is contributed to the global understanding of sea turtle population trends.
what tourists can do
Since the western Cape is still very unpopulated humans pose less of a threat than animal predators but they do still cause added problems for the plight of nesting turtles and their offspring.
Turtles are very sensitive to noise, light and movement as they are coming out of the water and crossing the beach to dig a nest. If they are disturbed they may go back into the ocean without laying their eggs.
So if you’re heading to the western Cape this is what you can do to minimize your impact:
- Avoid driving on the beach as much as possible, not only to avoid crushing hatchlings, but also because it can compact the sand and make it difficult for hatchlings to emerge from their nest
- If you do drive on the beach make sure you drive slowly and watch out for nests, especially above the high tide mark
- Stick to driving at low tide on wet sand
- Avoid excessive lights (including campfires) on the beach at night since this confuses the turtles and their hatchlings
- If you come across a nesting turtle at night, use minimal light and move very slowly so that you don’t scare the turtle
- Keep dogs away from nesting turtles and eggs
- If you’re fishing, ensure you retrieve all your fishing nets
travel nq fast facts:
- If you find a tagged turtle (dead or alive) write down the number on the tag, when, how and where the turtle was seen (inc. a GPS if you have one) and give it to a Ranger or send it to email@example.com
- Sick or injured turtles should be reported to the local rangers
- Getting to the Western Cape: Take the Peninsula Development Road (PDR) to Weipa
Thanks to the Western Cape Turtle Treat Abatement Alliance for helping with this story. And also thanks to Lyndal Scobell, Johanna Karam and Kerry Trapnell for supplying photos.