Monday, 28 January 2013

Storms and turtles

Its a holiday weekend in Brisbane, but we are marooned!  For two reasons - our garage roller-door broke and so I don't want to open it again in case it won't shut, but also because of the incessant wind and rain.  We moved to Brisbane post-2011, so didn't experience those terrible floods, but right now we are getting a taste of what that was like.  Combined with the recent King tides, the Queensland coast is taking a battering.

I was really sorry to hear on Saturday how hard the Tropical Cyclone Oswald had hit Bargara and Burnett Heads near Bundaberg: we spent last New Year at Burnett Heads and had an incredible experience watching turtles nesting at Mon Repos: the largest Loggerhead turtle rookery in the South Pacific.  Flatback and Green turtles also lay their eggs there. Mon Repos is situated between Burnett Heads and Bargara.  Thinking about those wonderful creatures struggling out to sea in such storms, I realised I never posted on this blog about that trip.  January is right in the middle of the turtle breeding season (Nov-March), where female sea turtles will be coming onto the beach to lay their eggs at Mon Repos and also baby turtles will be starting to hatch and make their perilous journey to the sea, certainly even more perilous in this weather.

Last year we were really lucky and saw several female Loggerhead turtles come up the beach that night to lay their eggs.  It was amazing to watch such an enormous creature so close, apparently oblivious to 30 people stood around in the darkness (torch use was restricted).  She dug a hole in the sand and then began to lay 120 eggs, one after the other.  After she had finished she buried the eggs then made her way back to the ocean.  Some interesting facts about the turtles at Mon Repos:
- The eggs laid on the mainland produce mainly females and those laid on islands produce males - to do with the warmer temperature of the sand on the mainland.
- Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to maturity.
- It is 30 years before the turtles will return, to the same beach, and start to breed.  The longevity of the turtles is not yet known!
We were able to get very close but had to stay behind the turtle as she laid her eggs

After laying her eggs the turtle buries them (and almost herself!) in sand

Researchers take some measurements and mark the position of the eggs.

Sometimes, the turtles lay their eggs too low on the beach, so that they are in danger of being washed away by high tides.  To help conserve this endangered species, researchers and volunteers dig up the eggs after the turtle has gone back to the ocean and literally move them further up the beach.  Research has shown that if this is done within a short timeframe it doesn't affect the hatchling survival rate.  The turtle we were watching laid her eggs too low on the beach, and so we also helped with the egg relocation - I was thrilled to hold some turtle eggs as we all helped move the eggs as quickly and carefully as we could.  

Eggs after they are dug up and counted, ready to be buried again further up the beach
I hope the little turtles that I helped will be the 1 in 1000 that make it!

A sand sculpture Edd made at Mon Repos beach the next day, in memory of the beautiful turtles we saw.  Edd has also done a couple of very cute illustrations of some other wildlife blown about in the Australia Day storms on his blog.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Kangaroo Island: Fur-seals and Sea-lions

Looks like I have a bit of catching up to do.  The last couple of months I have been on my travels, first to South Australia and Kangaroo Island, then back to the UK (via Hong Kong) for a wonderful 'proper' cold, damp, traditional Christmas with the family.  Arriving back in Australia in the middle of a massive heatwave is taking some getting used to!

Although this blog is now named 'Brisbane Adventures', it is really simply about the wonderful experiences of nature I have living here in Australia.  For that reason I certainly couldn't visit Kangaroo Island in South Australia and not write about it - its a nature wonderland.  In fact, so much so I think a single post won't do it justice!

Cape du Couedic, Kangaroo Island

Many people visit Kangaroo Island to encounter the Fur-seals and Sea-lions that live on the South coast.  There are three species that have set up home here: Sea-lions, New Zealand Fur-seals and Australian Fur-seals.  Although the tourist guides don't warn you about the smell - the colony really stinks!  The easiest way to tell them apart is mainly by colour (information from a Flinders Chase National Park notice board at Admirals Arch at the Cape du Couedic, where my photos were taken):

  • Australian sea-lion females and juveniles are very pale, almost white.  The bulls are dark, with a contrasting cream mane.
  • New Zealand fur-seals range in colour from dark grey to brown.  They have a long narrow pointed face with an upturned nose.
  • Australian fur-seals range in colour from light sandy-brown to grey-brown.  Their head is broader and shorter than New Zealand fur-seals.  
I hope my IDs below are correct!

Australian sea-lion

Australian fur-seal
NZ (left) and Australian (right) fur-seals fighting for their spot on the rocks

New Zealand fur-seal

Seals and Sea-lions surf the enormous waves to crash-land on the rocks

Aww.. a cute little Australian fur-seal (a pup or maybe a female)

All three species were severely hunted to the verge of extinction in the past following European settlement - seal fur and blubber was Australia's first export industry - and so today they are a protected species.  In particular, the Australian sea-lion is classed as vulnerable and declining, with an estimated 14,000 individuals in the wild.  However, their conservation status on Kangaroo Island and the relative abundance of the fur-seals and sea-lions now poses a major threat to the lovable Fairy Penguins, who also inhabit the island.  We went on a Penguin Tour at Penneshaw during our stay, and saw around 12 penguins: parents returning from a day at sea to feed their young.  Not long ago, there were hundreds of penguins all around this little coastal town, found up to 2km inland.  Now, they are all but gone and our guide was absolutely ecstatic to see 12:  it was the most she had seen in one night in her year on the job!  Many tours don't see any - which is a severe disappointment and a serious conservation concern.