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TURTLE HATCHLINGS ON NINGALOO

Updated: Mar 18

Brooke's guide to photographing turtle hatchlings on the Ningaloo Coast.


Documenting this natural event is a real highlight of life on the Ningaloo Reef, I highly recommend experiencing it yourself. Below are some tips on finding them as well as rules to follow to limit your impact during the interaction.



HATCHLINGS AT SUNSET

 Leaving home in Exmouth at 5pm, I drive down the coast on the western side of the cape. Hiking along the track through the dunes to the beach, backpack heavy with a selection of my favourite lenses. The search for baby turtles is on. The air is humid as the strong summer sea breeze wafts over the warm Indian ocean, sweeping sand over my feet, stinging my ankles. Along the shoreline are deep tracks from the huge turtle mums that nested here at high tide during the night. Throughout the dunes are hundreds of nests, this is where the search begins.


As the sun dips lower in the sky, the sand begins to cool and the light turns golden. I've been walking slowly and carefully up the beach near the nests, studying the sand for any signs of hatchlings erupting from a nest. Looking up overhead I watch the gulls, their eyes are trained for finding them better than mine. Any sudden movements from the gulls could mean we're on. I notice one gull swoop down up ahead, it plucks a turtle hatchling from the sand and flies off with its prize. I move quickly to where it had landed searching for the nest it just robbed. There in a small divot in the sand next to a big nest hole, some tiny turtle heads poke out, almost ready to erupt. Sitting patiently and fending off any approaching gulls I wait. Just as the sun gets lower there is movement, and the baby turtles shuffle and squirm against each other. Suddenly they begin to spill out until 20 hatchlings have emerged. The don't stop to for a second and instantly start their speedy descent across the beach towards the water. A few get confused and begin going the other way, but eventually they find their sense of direction and follow their siblings. The journey to the water is perilous. Ghost crabs and gulls hunt in large numbers along the beaches. Once they reach the ocean they are then at risk of being taken by sharks and other predatory fish.


It is estimated that only 1 in 1000 will make it to adulthood, and that is without considering human made factors. Marine pollution, bycatch, warming oceans and rising sea levels are some of the many threats they face today. This information makes me deeply appreciate every turtle I see alive and well out on the reef. They have beat some seriously tough odds to be there.



NESTING MOTHERS

From late October onwards thousands of turtles will aggregate along the Ningaloo coast for the mating season. If you are fortunate enough to take an aerial flight over the coast you can see them in there hundreds along popular nesting beaches. The Ningaloo is one of the most important rookeries in the whole Indian ocean. If you're hoping to see a mumma turtle laying her eggs, you want to try to be on the beach during the summer months at night, late afternoon or sunrise when there is a high tide. So that you can see if it's dark, you're only permitted to use a red light as bright light will disturb the turtles. Make sure to stay out of the turtles direct line of sight and don't approach closer than 15m. If the turtles get spooked while nesting it will abandon their nest and head to the water.


We are lucky to have a healthy population of Green Turtles, Loggerheads, Hawksbills and the occasional Flatback turtle too. There are 7 difference species of sea turtles world wide, all are listed as endangered.


You can read more about the Ningaloo turtle population by visiting this link: http://ningalooturtles.org.au




CODE OF CONDUCT: Please follow these rules


NO GLOW: Nesting turtles and hatchlings are easily disturbed by lights, use the moon to light your way.

MOVE SLOW: To avoid disturbing turtles, walk along the water’s edge.

STAY LOW: Out of sight of nesting turtles – sit, crouch or lie in the sand.

LET THEM FLOW: Let hatchlings make their own way to the ocean, do not touch, they take an imprint of that beach so they can return to the same area when they are ready to mate and lay eggs. Try not to get between hatchlings and the water’s edge.



WHEN TO GO?

Turtle nesting along the Ningaloo coast begins as early as November each year and we see turtles nesting as late as April. Peak hatching season is from February until late March, these are your best months to hope to see it. As for time of the day you want to aim for dawn and dusk as during the day time its not common for nests to erupt due to the heat and predators. The bulk of the hatching actually happens at night but in the dark it can be hard to find them and the use of bright lights is not allowed. I prefer to go late afternoon and sunset, so there is enough ambient light to get clear shots without disturbing the turtles.


WHERE TO GO?

From Exmouth there are many beaches along the Ningaloo coast with easy access for 2WD within a 20-30min drive from town. A great place to start is at the Jurabi Turtle Center, please read the signage before entering the beach. You can also book a turtle tour here from December to March https://exploreparks.dbca.wa.gov.au/site/jurabi-turtle-centre


When parking at the beach during turtle hatching season please park your car facing away from the beach so your head lights don't draw any hatchlings the wrong direction into the car park. Do not use any artificial lights such as phones when it's dark. Red light only is permitted.



GEAR AND CAMERA SETTINGS:

I recommend to use a zoom lens or macro lens. I usually shoot with either my Canon RF 100-500mm or my Canon RF 100m macro lens. You want to have a fast lens (wide f-stop such s f2-4 if you can) due to the low light. Aim to have a fast shutter as the hatchlings do move quickly. Minimum of 1/600s-/1000s, ISO 400-600 and an open aperture (f/2-f/7) are my go to settings. Put your camera on high speed burst mode. Get low to the sand to get a good angle, shooting across the beach slightly ahead of where the turtle is heading but not blocking its path directly. Ideally get the sun at your back for good lighting. We wary of where you step when taking photos, sometimes hatchlings can be under your feet so keep an eye out for them.



Thanks for reading and happy turtling!


Brooke



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