For at least 5,500 years the Butchulla people have called their island home K’gari, meaning Paradise. 185 years ago it was named Fraser Island by Europeans when shipwreck survivors from the ‘Stirling Castle’ came ashore. In late 2021 the island was renamed K’gari.
K’gari is situated just off the Queensland coast north of Brisbane. In 1992 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and at approximately 123 km long and 22 km wide it is the largest sand island in the world.
This was our secound visit to K’Gari. The first was a day tour in 2015, you can revisit those pics here.
We left home, on the Sunshine Coast, at 3.30am and arrived at Inskip for the 6.30 am barge across the ‘Great Sandy Strait’ to Hook Point, the southern most tip of K’gari.
The beach is the main road on K’gari (in most areas the only road) and all regular road rules apply.
Some areas are impassable at high tide so with a 3 1/2 hour drive from Hook Point to Sandy Cape Lighthouse where we were staying, timing of the tides was imperative.
The trip from Hook Point to Orchid Beach.
At Orchid Beach we met up with Allen, whom we had come to help. Allen is an experienced volunteer with the turtle program at Sandy Cape Lighthouse and an experienced beach driver. Because we volunteer at Sunshine Coast Turtle Care we had already had some turtle training. I had also just completed the ‘Marine Turtle Stranding Response Training’ through Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and we both felt ready and able to help Allen with his work. It was wonderful to put our training to practice and we learnt a lot more about turtles and beach driving during our 3 weeks working along side someone so experienced and willing to teach us.
We followed Allen from Orchid Beach to Sandy Cape Lighthouse, and kept in radio contact for his guidance through the more challenging parts, (of which there were plenty).
First tricky part was through Ngkala rocks south, then Ngkala Rocks north. Listening to the two-way radio is important in case someone else is already stuck in the crossing; reversing is not an option. At one point there is a steep climb, with deep sand and a tight corner with no visibility either way. Needless to say that’s where we got bogged. We christened the MAXTRAX to get out, although we were told, “if you only need MAXTRAX to get out then it doesn’t count as being bogged”.
Browns Rocks, was the next hurdle to get around; a car with boat and trailer were already stuck. With the tide on its way in we needed to dash through one area between waves.
This is Browns Rocks from the other direction (on our way home) with a higher tide. We shaved a few centimetres off our undercarriage.
The final tight spot on the drive to the lighthouse was ‘The Sticks’, an area of beach with large dead trees in it.
We arrived at the lighthouse on a beautiful hot sunny day and settled into our room in one of the two cottages that had previously housed the lighthouse keepers and their families.
The lighthouse was fully automated and demanned in 1997 and the cottages are now used for volunteers. Wikipedia has interesting information about the history of Sandy Cape Lighthouse.
The views were spectacular.
Marine turtles have lived in the oceans for over 100 million years. Human activities over the past 200 years has caused a serious decline in numbers world wide, and put the survival of these ’Ancient Mariners’ at risk. Of the seven species of marine turtles in the world, six frequent the waters of Australia.
The Queensland Government has lots of information about marine turtles, including an excellent Marine Turtle Field Guide free to down load.
Green turtles and Loggerhead turtles nest on the shores of K’gari at night between November and March each year. Hatchlings (baby turtles) start to emerge from their nests about 60 days after being laid. Hatchlings and turtle eggs are a normal part of the diet for dingoes and goannas and have been for thousands of years. The aim of the K’gari turtle program is to help increase the population of Loggerhead turtles by relocating their eggs into cages that are dingo and goanna proof. You can read more about the program here.
The ‘Satellite Tracking’ page of seaturtle.org has interesting information about the history of turtle monitoring on K’gari. One of the main instigators of this project is Aubrey Strydom, one of the two last lighthouse keepers at Sandy Cape and now a Sandy Cape Lighthouse Volunteer.
An extract reads “….In the first few years in the 1990’s between 50 to 100 greens, but only 5 to 7 loggerheads were nesting annually, and drowned adult loggerhead turtles were being found washed up on the beach. Nesting numbers increased to twelve to fifteen loggerheads a year from 1997 when a seasonal 3 to 5 km wide trawl exclusion zone was established along the NW beach between Rooney Point and Sandy Cape, and then climbed to near 50 nesting each year after the introduction of TEDs, (Turtle Exclusion Devices) in the Queensland trawl fishery nets in 2001. Currently annually about 40 to 50 loggerheads nest along the 44 kilometers of the Rooney Point to Sandy Cape to Ngkala Rocks rookery, and between 50 and 100 loggerhead nests are protected by relocation each season, by the Sandy Cape Lighthouse Volunteer Caretakers, in a program supported by QPWS.”
Each night during turtle season, trained volunteers monitor about 45km (90km return trip) of beach on the northern end of the island, which takes about 3 hours, more on a busy night. Dingoes also patrol the beaches and will dig up a turtle nest as soon as they find it. Thus, getting the eggs relocated before the dingoes or goannas dig them up is imperative.
Night patrols start any time between midnight and 3am depending on the tides and the ability to get to (and return from) certain sections of the beach. Sometimes we were still out at dawn which was just beautiful. Some dawn photos.
Nights on the beach during the full moon were magical.
Relocating Loggerhead turtle eggs
Once Loggerhead turtle tracks were identified we searched for the nest and relocated the eggs to one of the cages. Loggerhead turtles and Green turtles leave very different tracks on the beach. See Marine Turtle Field Guide for more details.
Finding the general area of the nest is reasonably easy, finding the chamber with the eggs can be very tricky. Female Loggerhead turtles reach sexual maturity around 25 – 30 years of age, lay about 120 eggs per clutch, and about 4 clutches per season, and then may not lay for another 2 years of more.
Extreme care must be taken when handling the eggs. The slightest rotation of an egg in any direction can damage the complex respiratory structures forming during this embryonic stage and it will die. Even once the eggs are in the box care must be taken to ensure the smoothest possible journey to the relocation site.
Data collection includes GPS coordinates of nest, how many eggs, depth of nest etc. etc. Recorded data is available to researchers through the Queensland Department of Environment & Science.
Relocation of eggs to cage. (the bottomless bucket stops the sand filling in the hole as we dig)
Tagging and Measuring
Basking or resting turtles, or those returning to the water having nested, are measured, photographed, their tags recorded along with GPS coordinates of where they were located, and if not already tagged, then tagged.
We found a dead turtle, checked for tags and recorded relevant data.
Occasionally we would notice turtle tracks going up to the dunes but none coming back down. Often it’s a turtle digging her nest and we leave her be. But on a couple of occasions we found turtles that had gone astray.
One had walked about 300 metres along the dune after nesting, heading towards the full moon behind the dune. We were able to redirect her back to the ocean.
Another green turtle had made her nest on some very steep dunes and somehow flipped up-side-down on her nest. She was a big girl, well over 100kg and it took both Allen and Tim to get her back on her flippers.
38 turtles from K’gari have had satellite trackers attached to them. You can check out their journeys here. A recent one is a male green turtle called ’A Murray’ who was released with his tracking device near the lighthouse on K’gari on the 16th December 2021.
“… His journey has included a curious 250km circumnavigation of K’gari-Fraser Island from 6th to 23rd January 2022, back to the courting grounds, centered on Breaksea Spit on the NE point of the Island.
On the 29th January 2022 he began an Easterly migration out into the Coral Sea, pausing for a few days from 22nd to 25th February 2022 at West Point, Belladonna Reefs, in the SW corner of New Caledonian waters, before heading East again, towards New Caledonia at about 60km a day.
On 7th March 2022 he arrived on the reef edge 20km west of Wala on Art Isle, and has paused there – he may still move on – the seaturtle.org map is only about 12 hours behind realtime so his further movements will show there.” Aubrey Strydom
The young lady above is Joannika, equiped with her satellite tracker, you can see her journey back to the Gulf of Carpentaria here.
Eggs and hatchlings
Not all uncaged nests are predated by dingoes or goannas. If we noticed hatchling tracks in the sand we would check for any live hatchlings stuck in the nest.
Tim found this little one half way down the nest tangled in grass roots (we named him Timmy Turtle). He happens to be a loggerhead turtle.
Once the hatchlings emerged from the nests in the cages we clean the nest out (ready for next season), record what we find, then bury the contents near the water line.
Occasionally the dingoes came to see what we were doing.
If a nest was well over due, it could be because the eggs had not developed. We would collect data on what we found when cleaning the nest (sometimes a rather smelly job). Other times we would find the hatchlings were just taking their time to come out.
When that happened we would collect the hatchlings and clean the nest then let the hatchlings go on the beach at sunset. On those occasions nearby campers would get involved which was great.
“…In the nest, hatchlings break from their eggs within a few hours of one another. It takes them about 24 hours to straighten out and leave the eggshell. As a group, the hatchlings climb upwards in a burst of activity. They breathe the air between the sand grains as they climb. It can take them two days to reach the surface. Hatchlings usually emerge onto the surface in a rush, mostly at night.” How to find hatchlings.
Only one in every 1,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood.
Two fell down this crab hole. And crabs love to eat small turtles. So we frantically dug them out.
Things we saw
According to DNA examinations from 2004, the dingoes of K’gari are “pure”, as opposed to dingo—dog hybrids. This finding challenges the perception that dingoes are nearly extinct. (Wikipedia)
In 2015 Dr Alan Wilton’s genetic research into Australian dingoes discovered that K’gari dingoes were the last of the pure dingoes and as a species, could soon be extinct.
Thankfully we have come a long way since the last of the Thylacines (Tasmanian Tigers), but is it enough? ‘..between 1888 and 1909 the Tasmanian government paid £1 per head for dead adult thylacines and ten shillings for pups. In all, they paid out 2,184 bounties, but it is thought that many more thylacines were killed than were claimed for. Its extinction is popularly attributed to these relentless efforts by farmers and bounty hunters.’ Wikipedia
This video highlights the balancing act between tourism and the extinction of a species. ’The last of the pure dingoes’
The ’Dingoes of K’gari – Safety and Information Guide’ has important information for anyone traveling to K’gari.
Historically lighthouse keepers duties included the weather station. Even after lighthouses were automated some remote areas kept lighthouses manned due to the importance of the weather stations. Lighthouse volunteer caretakers, such as at Sandy Cape, are trained in recording and sending the relevant data to the Department of Meteorology (BOM). At Sandy Cape this is taken each morning when the readings from the Stevenson Screen is recorded.
Due to the strong rips and a healthy population of sharks around K’gari, snorkelling was out of the question. But we got in a few swims to cool off.
Even managed to throw the lines in once.
The graves of the first lighthouse keeper and his daughter. John Simpson was the Great Great Grandfather of our neighbour Kent.
Sandy Cape Queensland – RAAF Radar Station, 1942-45 During WWII the Sandy Cape station was also home to the RAAF No. 25 Radar Station with 30 men who were based in huts in the valley. The bunkers still remain today as a visitor attraction.
Magical night skies
Another amazing adventure.
Keep safe, til next time, Helen & Tim