It’s daybreak on a somewhat unremarkable former military bombing range a day’s sail south-west of Darwin. Brahminy sits motionless in the mirror-calm conditions a stone’s throw from the beach as we dinghy in to check out what’s been happening on the beach overnight.
Luck is with us! A multitude of tiny tracks leading to the water’s edge tell us the Flatback hatchlings have broken free from their shells overnight and dug themselves from their sandy nests above the high water mark to begin a perilous, often-futile, journey to adulthood. Most are nowhere to be seen so they’ve either made it safely into the Timor Sea – or become the prey of seabirds waiting in their path for an easy feed.
Interspersed generously between the tiny scurryings are big bold fresh tracks trisecting the beach, indicating that several adult Flatbacks have also been active here in the night, lumbering up from the sea to scoop out nests in the sand and lay fresh eggs for their next batch of babies.
This is Bare Sand Island, appropriately named in light of its spartan vegetation, consisting of a few weedy shrubs and a couple of scrubby trees.
It’s a critical nesting and breeding sanctuary for the Flatback Turtle – and one of our favourite cruising spots for a dry season long weekend away. The island nudges the coast 100 km south-west of Darwin in Bynoe Harbour, an easy sail in the right winds – and a blissfully calm and uncluttered anchorage, especially for shallow draft catamarans, on the neap tides.
The island’s Australian Flatback Turtle population has been the focus of conservation research programs for more than 30 years and one program started in the mid 1990s has recorded more than 1000 adult specimens nesting here. The nesting season is concentrated between May and October and during the peak months of June and July, up to 20 turtles can come ashore each night.
We feel privileged on this gentle golden morning to find that at least one batch of tiny hatchlings has got the timing wrong and we are in time to witness them still climbing from their nest to begin their dash down to the sea. The rule of thumb from wildlife conservation managers is, ‘Don’t interfere with nature’. But it goes against the grain not give these vulnerable little beings a helping hand when less than one in every 2500 hatchlings will survive into adulthood. This particular batch is unwittingly making a bee-line for an unsurmountable barrier of gulls, a hovering White-bellied Sea-eagle and other local seabirds waiting along the shoreline to pluck them off one by one.
We don’t feel guilty that at least a few dozen have survived their first journey and are probably now swimming and growing in warm tropical seas off the north coast somewhere and will come back to this very island as adults one day to lay their own eggs and start another generation of their species.
Kerry & Col Sharp
LW 38 Brahminy