The Gnaraloo Turtle Conservation Program (GTCP) is a monitoring, research and community engagement program located in a remote part of Western Australia (WA), approximately 1,100 km north of the city of Perth.
The program was initiated in 2008 by a private wilderness tourism business – making it relatively unique among turtle conservation programs – based at Gnaraloo Station, a working pastoral station covering some 90,000 ha of coastal outback.
The GTCP aims to identify, monitor and protect sea turtle rookeries found within the southern part of the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area, where little research has taken place historically. This remote stretch of coastline is home to the largest confirmed mainland loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) rookery in WA, contributing to the third largest loggerhead population in the world. Furthermore, the GTCP aims to increase public awareness of turtle and marine conservation by giving presentations to school and community groups throughout WA, Australia and globally.
Daily beach surveys
Each nesting season, the GTCP field team completes research on vulnerable loggerhead turtles, and occasionally endangered green turtles (Chelonia mydas), nesting at Gnaraloo. The GTCP recruits a small field team (typically five people) every season who conduct daily beach surveys to count and interpret turtle tracks in order to establish the size and species composition of rookeries at Gnaraloo. A random sub-sample of nests are designated as Sampled Nests and are checked each day over the course of incubation to determine the influence of predators, erosion and inundation on hatching success.
Annual monitoring since 2008/09 has revealed that Gnaraloo Bay – the main turtle nesting beach on the station – receives roughly 400 nests per season. Preliminary surveys on another, more isolated beach (Cape Farquhar), located 22 km north of Gnaraloo Bay, suggest that this site may receive a comparable, or slightly lower, number of nests each year.
Approximately 98% of nests on Gnaraloo beaches are from loggerhead turtles, while the remaining 2% belong to green turtles.
This year the GTCP began satellite tagging of the nesting loggerheads at Gnaraloo Bay. Little is known about the foraging habitats used by this population, therefore, this will provide critical spatial and temporal movement data for use in management planning. The satellite tags will regularly fix and transmit a GPS location when the turtle comes to the surface to breathe or is returning to nest. We are hoping to discover how these turtles move while on the breeding ground near Gnaraloo and identify where they go to feed once they are done nesting. Turtles spend around 75% of their adult life cycle in their feeding zones, so it is vital to know where the females that nest at Gnaraloo go for their effective conservation.
To coincide with the tagging program, the world’s first purpose-built turtle tacking app has been created. The app allows users around the world to view and track female turtles making their migrations. This novel approach utilizes current technology and interlinks it with conservation, enabling mainstream audiences to quickly and easily learn about research. The app is already up and running, with five females having been released, so you can follow them throughout the nesting season and beyond. The free app is called “Turtle Tracker” and can be downloaded for Apple, Google and Windows phones.
Feral Animal Control
The GTCP operates in cooperation with the Gnaraloo Feral Animal Control Program (GFACP), which was implemented to reduce the impact of feral predators on sea turtle nests on the Gnaraloo coast. Prior to 2008, nest predation was a major issue, with over 80% of nests being affected by feral animals. However, since the 2010/2011 season, feral predation has been reduced and maintained at 0%, providing complete protection of sea turtle eggs and hatchlings from foxes, feral cats, and wild dogs.
The effectiveness of the GFACP is independently monitored by the GTCP team during field surveys (i.e., feral predator track counts). The work carried out by the field team and their collaboration with GFACP is critical for the on-going protection of Gnaraloo rookeries.
Education and Outreach
Lastly, the GTCP places strong emphasis on community education and outreach. Public engagement and widespread awareness of environmental issues provides a connection between researchers and members of the public that can inspire conservation.
In the field at Gnaraloo, community members and school groups are invited to join the GTCP on day/night beach surveys to learn about monitoring techniques and sea turtle conservation. Once the nesting season concludes, the team travels south along the WA coast, stopping at different towns between Gnaraloo and Perth to give presentations to students and community members. Last year 2014/15, the field team reached over 7,000 people through presentations and media, highlighting the program’s focus on raising awareness for sea turtles and conservation through education.
Home page: Day survey sea turtle track interpretation (Credit: Jordy Thomson)
GTCP intern collecting data on a sampled nest (Credit: Kimberly Nielsen)
Loggerhead turtle returning to the ocean on our morning survey (Credit: Nick Goldsmith)
Secured loggerhead waiting for the glue to set before her release (Credit: Peter Koch)
First loggerhead to be attached with a satellite tag at Gnaraloo bay – Normalex (Credit: Peter Koch)
Wild dog track on the beach on our morning survey
Presentation by the GTCP field team on sea turtle biology and conservation
Morning beach activities with a local school group at Gnaraloo Bay