Across the shores of the Ningaloo Reef, wildlife photographer Lewis Burnett joins one of nature’s great spectacles, the annual turtle hatching season, to find out more about the species that call these shores their home.
Alone on a deserted beach at the edge of the Indian Ocean, the embers of the evening’s sunset still illuminate the skies above. My heart is full and my mind races to process the magic we were lucky enough to witness less than an hour earlier. I find myself thinking about how this world works, how we are all so caught up in the daily chores of life that moments like this seem fleeting and rare, something that we need to cling on to and savor. I remind myself that events like this were the reason I changed my path in life.
Watching baby turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests had been something I’d wanted to witness for years. I’d been lucky enough to live and work in a couple places across Australia and South-East Asia that had turtle rookeries but had never managed to find myself there in the right season. So, this summer, when my partner and I moved back to the Ningaloo Reef, I was determined not to miss it.
Rounding the tip of the Cape Range in Australia’s Northwest you are greeted with a vast, expansive horizon as the ancient range crumbles into the rocky plain below and across to the shores of the Ningaloo Reef. We arrive at a small dirt track that cuts between the sparse scrub and pull up just before the dunes start. Leaving the comfort of the air-conditioned car we are assaulted by the stifling heat and a small army of flies, a quintessential Australian greeting in most arid parts of the country. We pack the cameras, fill up our water bottles and head down the track that winds between the coastal dunes to the beach.
Arriving at the beach, I am taken aback by the sheer scale of the rookery. There are nests stretching as far as the eye can see. The usually windswept and homogenous dunes are instead a series of undulating potholes created by mother turtles as they excavate nest sites in the night to lay their clutch of precious eggs. We carefully make our way to a vantage point on a tuft of vegetation and begin the long waiting game that so often dominates wildlife photography.
Green turtles make up the majority of the population of nesting sea turtles on the Ningaloo coast, but there are also a smaller percentage of loggerhead and hawksbill turtle nests that can be found here. Although considered to be either Endangered or Critically Endangered worldwide, this coastline supports a healthy population due to its lack of development, low human population density and less frequent commercial fishing activities in the region. Elsewhere across our planet, these turtles are not so lucky. Coastal development is the primary issue. Turtles struggle to nest on busy, bright and noisy beaches. In areas where no concessions have been made to provide suitable nesting habitats, populations are plummeting.
Activity. A seagull has managed to pluck off one of the first hatchlings to emerge and is now trying to evade a squadron of aerial thieves looking to steal the baby turtle from its beak. Turtle hatchlings have a tough start in life. Having broken through the shell of their egg and heaved themselves up through the sand in which they are buried, they arrive to a surface fraught with danger. Flocks of airborne scavengers such as silver gulls and terns gather at these nesting sites during hatching season, ready for an easy meal. If the newly emerged hatchlings avoid predation from above, they still have to navigate dingos, goannas and ghost crabs before they make it to the ocean. It’s easy to see why only one in a thousand turtles survive to adulthood.
My partner calls out to me with excitement as she races across the shoreline and up into a dune where an avian bombardment gives away the fact turtles are emerging from a nest. I get there moments later, scaring away the remaining gulls before more of the hatchlings are taken. I run over this scenario a couple days later, curious about our lack of compassion for the gulls and their need to eat. Some comfort is provided by a local Exmouth resident who had mentioned that the local gull population had exploded during the Covid pandemic due to a boom in tourist numbers visiting the cape. The local rubbish disposal site hadn’t been able to keep up with the waste, providing a bounty for scavengers. These moments certainly get my internal dialogue going about our natural bias towards more ‘charismatic’ species on our planet and the difficulty we have in sitting back and watching as nature, in all its brutal and raw glory, takes the stage.
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