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Against all odds...a Sea Turtle Survival Story

When Sienna, an endangered loggerhead turtle, laboured her way up Rainbow Beach’s main swimming area under the full moon on the 12th of December 2019, she had no idea she was entering the busiest location in the 50 kilometers of beach under the stewardship of Cooloola Coastcare. Her mind was on the task at hand; depositing this large clutch of eggs in a safe location above the high tide, away from the raging surf and sweeping tides so common along this stretch of soft, multi-coloured sand. 

 

Little did she know that the silent high dune of sand and the broad opening she entered were a walking path for thousands of humans in the peak school holiday tourist season. All she saw was clean white sand, free of plants and tree roots,  just the right temperature and consistency for a perfect turtle nest. She settled in for the long, slow dig. 

 

When she was done, she filled her nest with over 100 ping pong ball sized eggs. She covered them in sand with long sweeps of her flippers, fluffing the sand at the end to disguise their location from predators and lumbered back across the beach to the safety of the sea. Little did she know that ahead of them, these eggs faced an onslaught from nature that would challenge even the hardiest of creatures. 

 

The rains began within 12 hours of them being laid. By this time Sienna was far out to sea incubating the next batch of eggs, oblivious to the dangers being faced by her growing brood. Fortunately, a member of the public out for a morning walk reported her telltale tracks and nest to Cooloola Coastcare. A quick response by the Coordinator and President engaged the ever-helpful Gympie Regional Council team to erect some clearly labeled mesh fencing to block the pathway which saved the eggs from certain death under the trampling feet of hoards of tourists. Instead they became an instant tourist attraction.  

By the next morning the pathway nest had been flooded and the surface dreadfully eroded by thousands of litres of water. It turned out that their path was actually the main drainage for the entire beach car park and picnic area. Over 200mm of sand had been lost and the egg chamber was perilously close to the surface. Hasty work by the Coastcare TurtleCare team to shift sand from the beach restored their protective coating of sand and the first disaster was averted. A stronger metal fence replaced the plastic mesh and large signs directed tourists to alternative routes. A row of sandbags were added to divert the water. The babies were safe again...for now.

 

The next day an even bigger deluge broke over the wall of sandbags inundating the nest again,  stripping the surface sand away again. An industrial strength solution would be needed as a cyclone moved south threatening the coastline with flooding and high seas with storm surge. Volunteers filled another layer of sandbags that were arranged into a drain along the side of the nest. Lined with black garden plastic, the makeshift drain successfully diverted the raging torent to one side of the path and the little turtles grew happily in their eggs along side the “drain”. Fortunately the predator mesh installed on top of the nest had worked to also stop water from ripping even more sand from their underground nest. 

  

The question loomed...had the nest been drowned in the first 2 storms? It was a long and tense wait with many more storms in the drought breaking rain that soaked Queensland and flooded the notorious Coondoo Creek Bridge. The expected hatching date of 55 days came and went with no signs of life. The mood was somber when people met at this nest. Other nests hatched and ran. The path stayed empty. 

 

For the next 15 days TurtleCare volunteers started making excuses to swing by and check the nest for signs of life at all times of the day and night. Finally at Day 70, the sand was tested above the nest to check it hadn’t become so compacted the little babies couldn't break through. Fortunately it was soft and pliable but just below ground the shell of a little turtle could be felt. A cheer went up and the mood shifted to one of hopeful excitement. Maybe they hadn’t all been drowned. 

 

It was decided to mount an all night vigil to await their arrival. The minutes ticked interminably slowly as the weary volunteers drank coffee from their thermos and gradually ran out of conversation as the chill of the early morning drove them to their cars for comfort and a few winks of sleep. By morning, the only movement had been a crab, not a welcome visitor to this party. One hardy soul remained on watch, her only reward a beautiful sunrise but NO turtles.

 

 Another even more inhospitable night of sand-filled wind was experienced by the next night shift of volunteers. Turtles rarely run in the daylight. Again the weather drove them to their cars for respite. Had the babies died in the nest? How many had survived the long 72 days. Morning came and went and volunteers returned home with the expectation of another shift standing watch for a third night. 

 

On their way home from a weekend visiting family on the Sunshine Coast, Coordinator Lindy Orwin and President Randy Orwin who had stood watch that first night, thought they’d swing by the nest before dark to see if there was any change to be seen in the sand on the surface. Their hope was for an indentation to indicate the babies were emerging. They approached the nest and to their delight, there was a hollow in the middle of the nesting site, a definite indicator that the turtles might be alive and might run soon. Or was it just that big crab they had seen digging two nights before? Could some of the hatchlings have survived? It was now day 73 in what should have been 55 to 60 day incubation. Then they noticed it. The sand was “boiling”. The surface was rolling like bubbles. There must be turtles underneath climbing over each other to escape. The hatching run was beginning NOW!!

 

Text messages and FaceBook posts were fired off. Volunteers, visitors, rangers and townsfolk appeared out of nowhere in cars and on foot. An anxious crowd gathered along the fence of the path not knowing what to expect. The first little head looked like a seed of a Casuarina tree but it moved and two little flippers emerged from the sand. In what seemed like an eruption of baby turtles, the hole transformed into a seething mass of little bodies; perfectly formed miniatures of their prehistoric parents. The first hatchling burst forth heading for the sea. Everyone cheered them on. It was still light enough for lots of photos and videos of this ancient ritual. Flanked by their adoring fans these cute little babies scurried to the sea. 

A roar went up when a wave swept up to the leaders and swept them out to sea, almost taking a few bystanders with them. The beach was electric with joyful, excited people of all ages, their hearts stolen by these tiny creatures who were beginning a journey repeated for millions of years yet mostly a mystery to science. Everyone one wished them well. Every hatchling that emerged made it safely to the water. How many made it past any underwater predators in the rough surf, we will never know. Hands were shaken. Backs were slapped. Hugs were exchanged. The happy crowd had witnessed a magical moment in nature where the tiny turtles who had faced so may challenges already in their short lives, had emerged victorious over the elements and made it to the sea. All these would be male turtles due to the long gestation period indicating cooler temperatures. Some of these little guys would be back one day to create a new generation of loggerhead turtles. Everyone left with a wide smile and a warm heart.  

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Trish O'Gorman
That must have been an amazing sight to see Lindy! Thanks for sharing.
Ashley Conrad Little
I missed the hatching but wasn't going to miss the digging of the nest. Expecting to only see the one's that didn't survive, I watched 7 more loggerhead babies get their chance at life. Well worth the 2 hour round trip. Will be making every effort to see a full nest hatching.
Every time I read this it brings tears to my eyes. An amazing capture of a timeless ancient ritual. Birth, Creation, Babies saved so Mother Nature can continue to repeat herself. I love these little baby turtles. Great work Coloola Coastcare! Thank You.
4 people like this.
Trish O'Gorman
That must have been an amazing sight to see Lindy! Thanks for sharing.
Ashley Conrad Little
I missed the hatching but wasn't going to miss the digging of the nest. Expecting to only see the one's that didn't survive, I watched 7 more loggerhead babies get their chance at life. Well worth the 2 hour round trip. Will be making every effort to see a full nest hatching.
Every time I read this it brings tears to my eyes. An amazing capture of a timeless ancient ritual. Birth, Creation, Babies saved so Mother Nature can continue to repeat herself. I love these little baby turtles. Great work Coloola Coastcare! Thank You.
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