Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Reflecting on 2008 - what a year!

It is nearly 2009 already! As I sit here in Toronto, Canada, and watch the snow fall outside it is hard to believe we were on Crab Island only a few weeks ago. It has been an amazing year full of new discoveries and amazing experiences after several trips to the island. I would have to write a book to list them all, but here are some:

o Witnessing and documenting, for the first time, crocodile predation on sea turtle hatchlings, and the previously unknown congregation of crocs on the island;

o Having the privilege to witness thousands of flatback turtles nest and hatchlings emerge;

o Having the unique experience of sharing an island with dozens of crocodiles, seeing their behaviours night after night;

o The times when we were literally surrounded by nesting turtles and hatchlings;

o Coming face-to-face with ‘Godzilla’, a massive 6m+ (18ft+) crocodile I had heard many stories about dating back to the 70’s and finally got to see him one night on the beach on Crab Island (with an adult sea turtle in his mouth);

o Successfully deploying satellite trackers and determining migration paths and feeding grounds of Crab island flatbacks for the first time;

o Tracking flatback turtles outside of Australia for the first time and identifying feeding grounds in Indonesia;

o Being able to collect remigration and renesting intervals for the first time;

o Being able to work with and enjoy the company of the Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people of the area;

o Discovering significant Olive Ridley nesting in the area;

o Adding many new species to the Crab Island list, including many rare birds, frogs and several snakes;

o Seeing the seasonal changes on the island and the cycle of the wildlife, including migratory birds, tiger sharks, indo pacific humpback dolphins, and of course the sea turtles and crocodiles;

o Being able to spend quality time on Crab Island, getting to know and understand the natural rhythms and discovering it’s unique ecology;

Most importantly, the data we have collected is a step forward for effective conservation of the world's largest nesting population of flatback turtles.

Crab Island is certainly a wild and fascinating place… I can’t wait until we are back on beaches again next year!! In the meantime I am eagerly watching the migration patterns of our satellite tracked girls...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nat crosses the Australian/ Indonesian border

Nat made history on Monday the 17th November. She is the first Flatback Sea Turtle to be ever tracked outside of Australia. She crossed the Australian border and is now in Indonesian waters heading towards Irian Jaya in Western Papua.
Nat will provide some of the first evidence of where flatbacks feed outside of Australia.

To see where Nat is right now click here

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A scene from the Jurassic age

A crocodile and a sea turtle, 2 reptile species which have survived since before the dinosaurs, meet on the beach at Crab Island.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Nat leaves with satellite transmitter attached

Nat enters the ocean prior to her migration north:

Up close with the Crab Island locals

Its not everyday you get to swim with a saltwater crocodile...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Follow the turtles on the web

The turtles we put satellite tags on during the trip can be tracked on the web. Go to:

Alby Out (by Scott, aka Alby)

Well the adventure of a lifetime has come to an end and I write this blog sitting in Cairns reflecting on the last 12 days. Where do you start??
The Irwin’s (aka Brett & Kelsey) are certainly in their element on the island. You will be riding along on the quads, and all of a sudden we come to a complete stop. “What is it?” I would ask. “Did you see that beautiful puff breasted spotted drongo?” or “Did you here that ‘whoop whoop’ sound? It’s a red legged 10 foot Jabiru?” my answer would inevitably be “No I didn’t. Where?. Sitting here in Cairns I can safely say I still haven’t for the majority!!!!!

The heat on the island was completely zapping. On Thursday we hit 56oC and 48oC in the shade in our living room!! That’s all I would like to say about that.!!!!!!
Experiencing the turtles and seeing them on the island was absolutely fantastic. They are an amazing creature and I certainly have a greater fascination and heightened respect for them and the environment in which they live.
Seeing the crocs up so close and personal was also an experience . My ears and eyes were constantly pricked for any movement in and around the water. Your senses continually on high alert when you were close to the water working with the turtles or getting in and out of the boat. Again a new respect and greater understanding having lived so close to them for the last 10 days.
My contribution to the island was the Crab Island Totem. For those that now go onto the island you have the opportunity to leave a little piece of you there with it. Hopefully over time this will grow as you all take the time and make the effort to get to the island.
The highlight was definitely having my birthday on the island ( the first recorded birthday in history on Crab). Brett and Kelsey went to so much trouble, and my “pudding in a can” cake was delicious.

Thanks to the Irwins for such a great week. Thanks for looking after me.
Goodbye World. Alby Out.

Off the Island (by Kelsey)

*Crab Island from the air
In Seisia we cleaned the long boat, quads, and gear.
We packed away the things that will stay up on Cape York, thanks to Greg giving us the space to do so. After getting all of that sorted and doing laundry, we enjoyed showers, time to relax, and fresh food.

The next day we took the morning ferry to Thursday Island where we spent about 5 hours before our flight. We hung out in a friendly cafĂ© located in the cultural centre. Here we used the internet, uploaded photos, relaxed in the shade, and had some good food. Then we were off by ferry to Horn Island, where the local airport is. The flight from Horn Island to Cairns has beautiful views. We first watched Crab Island go by under us…it looks so big from up in the sky. Then we flew over other islands which make up the Great Barrier spectacular! Once we landed in Cairns and settled in we took Scott down to the Esplanade to see a little of Cairns. We walked along the boardwalk to the Pier for dinner…it was nice to be waited on. Being back in civilization can be overwhelming at first; but it is amazing how much you appreciate all the little things so much more after living on a remote island for a long time.

It was back to reality today after we said goodbye to Scott.
We had such a fantastic trip, which made it so sad to have it come to an end. It sure was great having Scott on the island with Brett and me. He was certainly in his element and he took on the wilds like a man who had never seen civilisation! Being able to share what we love was a good feeling. Tomorrow Brett and I head south and I hope we will soon be planning another trip in the near future back up to Crab, our island home!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Leaving the Island

It is always an anxious time when it comes to leaving the island – hopefully the wind and tides are ok, and the boat starts and runs well. It is also the time when you are spending a lot of time in and around the water, so hopefully the crocs aren’t hungry also! It is definitely not a time to be complacent. The island is remote and it is a long trip back to ‘civilisation’.

We timed the tide to allow the boat to be sitting high and dry on the beach in the morning so we could load it safely with gear and the quads. Thankfully we woke up to a beautiful day and loaded up the boat before waiting for the tide to wash underneath and float the boat. Once this happened around 9am we were off. We cruised along nicely and spent some time surveying the mainland beaches for turtle nesting and spotting wildlife, such as Jabirus. At one stage we stopped to have a cast at some tuna schools which were hitting bait fish at the surface – unfortunately they were submerging quickly and proved tough to keep up with, so we moved on with our dreams of fresh sashimi passing by..

After a good, smooth run Scott pulled the boat up in Seisia mid-morning. The weather Gods had smiled. Seisia is now a very sleepy little outpost now the tourist season is over and no 4wds are heading up Cape York due to the beginning of the wet season.

Tiger Sharks

We often see smaller reef sharks cruising the shallow waters off the beaches around Crab Island. In the last few days we have seen sharks which are somewhat bigger (over 3.5m) patrolling the waters – tiger sharks!! We have seen several swimming only within metres off the beach. On one such occasion I wandered out on to Billy’s Bluff, a place where I often go to scan the waters for goings on. The first thing I saw was a massive shape in the clear waters a little to the north and very close to the beach. I sang out to Scott as I raced to pick up my fishing rod and run down to the beach. I arrived at the water’s edge just in time to fire a perfect cast just ahead of the large shape. I twitched the little lure, hoping not to attract the actually shark (my rod would have snapped!) but to attract any other predatory fish travelling with the shark (often, schools of fish will travel with them to clean up the scraps). Within seconds my line when taught before a battle ensued!! A silver shape darted around peeling off line as it went. I eventually got the better of it and reeled in a nice trevally.

* an image of a tiger shark attacking a green turtle at Raine Island on the Northern Great Barrier Reef (a few hundred kilometres to the east of Crab island). Raine Island is the only place in the world where tiger sharks are known to congregate. They time this to feed on the nesting sea turtles.

Fishing Frenzy (by Kelsey)

Brett and Scott brought their fishing poles everywhere we went pretty much. So we all had a go at fishing around the island. It normally works that 2 people fish, whilst the 3rd person is on croc watch! In the last few days we all managed to catch a few fish. We have mostly caught trevally and queenfish off the front beaches. Both are powerful fish and the queenfish are a sports fisher(wo)men’s dream as they perform acrobatics across the surface. Anytime the guys saw a dark shadow of a fish or a group of bait fish they would stop and have a cast. Mullet are starting to spawn around the island at the moment and casting to these schools has proven successful more often than not.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Swimming with Crocodiles

The seasons are changing here in the far north of Australia, with a shift from the predominant south east trade winds which blow consistently for 8 months of the year to the more gentle northerlies. With this brings clearer water around Crab Island. It also provided a unique opportunity to take a dip with a curious reptilian friend and get a little bit of underwater footage. He was keen to check me out and I was wrapped to spend some time swimming with the friendly fella. I will post some video at a later date...

Poor Pelican

Brett and I went out to do a routine check for turtles nesting last night. As we headed around the northern part of Crab Island we noticed a croc up on the beach. It seemed hesitant to leave but as we drove closer on the quad it ran back to the water. When we got up to his tracks we looked up the beach to find a dead pelican on the ground. (For a side note the Australian Pelican is much larger than its relative seen in America. This massive bird has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres). Of course we had to have a closer look. We found that the 3.5 metre croc went up the beach about 55 metres to the point where the attack occurred. What a commotion it must have been, there were scuffle marks in the sand, blood, and feathers. So when we saw the croc he was dragging the pelican down the beach but dropped it in order to get to the water before we arrived. He dragged the pelican about 30 metres before he reluctantly dropped it. We saw bite marks on the pelicans back and neck. Either the croc snuck up and attacked the pelican or a group of pelicans landed near the croc and startled him which caused the attack. Whichever way the attack occurred the poor pelican was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This morning we saw the pelican still on the beach in the same spot, so we must have startled the croc enough for him to drop the pelican and not return. You never know what you are going to find on Crab Island that’s for sure.

Gigantic Starfish

As we were going along the beach we stopped in astonishment when we saw a huge starfish washed up onshore. It was purple and orange in color and by far the biggest one I have ever seen. It was heavy too when I picked it up.

Nora the nomad...

Our final transmitter was attached with much relief. Due to the tides (a falling tide all night), the turtles have been reluctant to nest and we have had a couple quiet nights. With time running out we were starting to wonder if we would get the last transmitters on. Luckily we had a couple of girls come up to nest near camp and we maneged to deploy the last 2 transmitters. The final transmitter was on Nora the Nomad, otherwise known as ‘Bloody Nora’ for her feisty character. Nora was keen to bite anything that came near her and proved a handful. She was also quite a picky girl having wandered over 100m along the beach and dug several body pits. We got her as she was returning to the water without actually laying, so we expect her to nest again in the next few nights.

Kel-Sea is on her way!!

We attached our 4th satellite transmitter to a girl we named Kel-Sea. She was quite a large turtle, by far the biggest we have put a satellite tag on. It took a fare bit of effort to hold her up and attach the harness, but in the end we did it quickly and had her on her way within 30 minutes. As of yesterday afternoon she was sitting just 3 kilometres off Crab Island’s south west corner.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The migration begins..

If you had read the last post you would have noted that i mentioned that Nat may migrate sooner than later because she is close to the end of her nesting. Well it seems she may be on her way. After a couple of days she is moving rapidly to the north west of Crab and is now over 100kms away. Will be interesting to see where her home lies....

Nat and Wombat with sat transmitters attached

*Wombat and Wombat

We have now deployed another 2 satellite transmitters on 2 turtles we have named Wombat and Nat (Nat is short for the flatbacks scientific name, Natator depressus). The nesting on the island has shifted to the north so we had to put all the gear on the ATVs and travel up that way to find some eligible candidates. Wombat was a nice clean turtle which provides less of a chance of the transmitter fouling up from barnacles, etc. Nat was a turtle we had met back in early September. We had tagged her in about the second week of our last trip. This means that she is most likely towards the end of her breeding for this season and we may see her migrate back to her feeding grounds soon. Having a history of Nat will provide us with valuable data.

*Nat with transmitter attached:

Never Smile at a Crocodile...

No turtles last night, but plenty of crocs. Not sure if it just me however they seemed much bigger in the spotlight than through the day time.

We had our first “near miss” last night whilst out on the beach.

When we go out we take both quads. Brett and Kelsey (B & K) ride up front with the spotlight and follow the same track to count the turtles that cross over since our last look. I follow about 50m behind generally minding my own business and keeping an eye out for,…… whatever!! No light on my bike other than the head spots we wear.

Whilst heading along the beach last night the crocs seemed concentrated in one particular area of the beach waiting for the hatchlings to emerge. I didn’t see it up ahead, however a croc was further up the beach than normal, which B & K had seen in the spotlight.

As we were cruising along the beach, often slowing to have a closer look at the crocs as they sat “just” in the water, heads out, we sort of forgot about the one on the beach, assuming it had headed to the water as they normally do.

We slowed to check a smallish croc, and I let B & K get ahead as normal. As I was starting to get a bit of speed up, I caught one red eye about 10m away to my right moving like Carl Lewis towards the water about 2 foot off the ground. It was a very healthy 4.2m croc. We were both moving at the same pace and were on a collision course of which I am not sure what the outcome to would have been.

At the same time B & K seemed to have realised that he hadn’t seen the croc and spun the bike and the spotlight around. This startled the croc a bit, and pushed straight towards me. It startled me too because for the first time I realised how big this bloody thing was through the back drop of the spotlight.

At this point everything moved in slow motion. I was now between the croc and the water, with my exit route fairly limited with the big blue ocean, and number of reptile neighbours, about 5m to my left. The pan or the fire? Hmmmm, might just sit on the fence for a minute!!!!

I sat tight, and thankfully our rather large friend decided to perform a “Benji Marshal” sidestep with about 3m to spare, and crashed into the water like a belly flop champion from the 15m board!!

All of this took about 10 seconds, however it seemed longer. I reckon he is the luckiest croc on the island. He just didn’t know who he was messing with. GRRRR!! Oh wombats grunt! GRUNT!!

The end of the Crab Island turtle nesting season

Prior to now it has been unknown when the turtle nesting season starts and ends on Crab Island. It appears that the nesting season is starting to wind down. When we arrived a week ago we saw 140 and 170 turtles nest on the first 2 nights, so we were a little unsure. But since then we have seen 45, 55, 40, 0 and 12 turtles nest on each night repectively. The tides have been pretty bad for nesting however, with high tide during the day. The big numbers at the start of the week was probably a result of turtles nesting on the last of the good tides, and now we are seeing a rapid decline.
The Crab Island flatbacks are unique in that they do not nest in Summer, but it appears they peak throughout August and September.
Getting the sateelite transmitters on late in the season is ideal as we are most likely to see them migrate back to theri feeding grounds sooner than later.

Where have all the turtles gone??

Last night was a first ever for a Crab Island trip. We drove south…no turtles so we figured they must be all up north again like the other night. Then we headed north...ok no turtles in the middle, that’s ok we still more beach to check. It was empty, all we drove over were old tracks from previous nights. Stopped at the north of the island we sat there pondering where they all could be. There were no turtles at all…not one turtle came up to lay. The tide was a bit lower and the winds have now changed, so that probably held the females back from coming in. Maybe they couldn’t make it over a sand bar, or maybe they are done nesting for the season. We are unsure of the answer to why none came up last night. So it will be interesting to see what happens tonight. Due to the lack of turtles we couldn’t put on our last two satellite trackers. So fingers crossed there are at least two turtles who come up tonight or tomorrow night.

Since we had some extra time on our hands last night this is what happened…

Chubby the Dugong

While doing our daily track count we stopped up north to have a fish. We looked out and saw a big dark shape moving offshore. Then a grey snout stuck out of the water for a breath. That is when we knew it was a dugong…which I named Chubby. He was a huge male, probably weighing over half a ton. Did you know they are actually related to elephants? How neat is that! Back in May the boys found a dugong skull and you can see the trunk like shape of its snout. They also walk on the ocean floor eating sea grass. In America we get the Manatee which is very similar to the dugong, but it has a different tail. I hope we get to see Chubby again.

Another lost sea turtle

It was so sad to find another turtle who had gotten herself lost in the middle of the island. She was unable to find the water again and as a result died from the heat. Poor girl. She looked like she hadn’t been there too long either maybe a week. If only we could have found her alive to help her out.

Our island friends

We weren't sure if crocodiles would be in lesser numbers upon our return after a few weeks. Numbers have remained the same and we count close to 30 crocodiles as we go out on the beach each night. They are still feeding on the hatchlings which are currently emerging in their thousands. However, there are some new individuals which have arrived since we left last time. The focus of the croc activity has shifted to new areas of the island where most hatchlings are emerging. This corresponds with the densest areas in nesting which we recorded 2 months back - those nests which were laid then are now emerging. This has also meant that there are a lot more crocodiles closer to camp than there were in September. But do not worry, we remain vigilent!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Time to kick back

Hello World, Alby here (hello Jack its Dad!!). Today was time to explore the island a bit. We held off getting any more trackers on last night until we were sure that Sarah J was operational, and Steve (aka Brett) was receiving signals from the heavens.

I have found a new habit of having a coffee on Billy’s Bluff every morning watching the tides and the goings on in the water and in the air around the island. Today was a glorious day without wind and really showed the beauty of Crab Island. We spent a lot of time fishing and checking the inland interior of the island. Its funny how you get used to the crocs being around. You never forget they are there though and one of us now seem to automatically watch the water/beach whenever the others are close by the water. That was a bit hard though when Brett decided that he wanted to get some underwater footage of one of our little mates and went wading chest high to capture, how would you say, unique footage!! (Not sure it will make this blog but worth a look... crazy bastard!!)

We have found a great swimming hole (minus the crocs!) which we seem to migrate to mid morning to avoid the heat. Did I say it was hot, damn hot!!!!. Hit above 50oC again today, and the breeze disappeared so we felt it a little more. It is consistently 40oC+ in our living room.

Sarah J is on her way!

Last night we attached the first satellite transmitter to a female flatback sea turtle named “Sarah J”. She was named by Scott’s son and my nephew Jack (the J in the name represents Jack)!! We were very excited as we watched her make her way down the beach and into the ocean and saw the orange light blink to say it was sending signals to the satellite.

Sarah J nested successfully just 50m from our camp. When she completed laying her eggs and started covering we tagged, measured and collected Dna, before lifting her out of her nest to attach the transmitter. This is the first flatback sea turtle to be tracked in Queensland. We have designed the attachment harness from scratch so this was a case of trial and error to ensure that the first one fit ok. After an hour and a half we were confident that it was set up right and soon after we let her on her way.

Soon we will find where she migrates to, which could be possibly up to 3000km away and may cross international borders, and Sarah J will (hopefully) provide the first information on what feeding grounds supply the largest flatback sea turtle rookery in the World.

Migration of the Spangled Drongos

We are seeing hundreds of Spangled Drongos passing over Crab Island and out to sea. They are currently migrating from New Guinea south to mainland Australia to breed for the summer.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Fishing on Crab Island

The time on the island has been great. Even better when we went fishing I caught my first ever barra, 2 in fact. Brett was very helpful and decided that he might catch the bait. He was trying to catch a feed, but he is a lot smaller than me and can survive on scraps.!!!! I felt guilty and had to share and they tasted great straight off the fire with lemon and herbs.

The fishing is a bit unnerving as we fish up amongst the mangroves about 50m from a croc slide at the mouth of the mangrove creek (you can see the slide just over Brett’s shoulders in the photo). You certainly have to be on your toes and conscious of where you are. As we were about to throw a line in Brett decided he might tell a story about coming face to face with a “huge” croc not far from where we were fishing. His timing is always impeccable!!!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Its My Birthday (A number of firsts)

Hello Jack. Today is my (Scott’s) birthday and I must say I don’t think I have experienced so many new things in the one day. Today was hot, damn hot. It hit 50oC (122oF) at 11.50am this morning. The hottest day for sure I have experienced. It was still 44oC in the shade in the living room. The list of firsts is long, so I wont put a story around them but I will list them:- I have patented a POO swing, strapped a GPS to a flatback, played flatback rodeo, seen a clutch of hatchlings emerge, played darts with shells (Kelsey won), speared a soft mud crab, swam in croc water and watched the sun go down on Billy’s bluff.

Kelsey and Brett have been wonderful today. Kelsey wrapped my present in the Cairns Post Newspaper with a story about a croc, and made me pudding in a can (another first), iced with vanilla custard. I appreciated the thought they put into it, as I also had candles that said “Happy Bday”. (the pudding was too small to say birthday).

As I tap away I have experienced another first. The temperature has just hit 54oC (130oF).

The challenges of being in a remote area!

A couple of technical bugs have delayed our posts, but we (think we have!) fixed the bugs.... so stay tuned...

Buff Breasted Paradise Kingfisher

Today we were so lucky and had the chance to see a Buff Breasted Paradise Kingfisher. This type of kingfisher is really rare to see, especially out here on an island. They tend to inhabit rainforests in north Queensland during the summer. So this one must be migrating from Papua New Guinea, and made a stop here on Crab Island. The vibrant colors (blue and gold feathers, with an orange beak) and characteristic long white tail are so remarkable to see.

The turtles are still nesting!

Once we recuperated from the trip we headed out to see what was happening on the beach. First we counted 319 tracks left over the past few nights. This told us that the sea turtles were still coming out to lay eggs in large numbers. Due to the tides the sea turtles were back to nesting early in the south and late in the north. Brett and I were able to show Scott the whole process in the daylight...females laying eggs, hatchlings emerging, and hatchlings being attacked by predators. We then had Scott checking for tags on nesting turtles; when he found a tag return it was an amazing feeling. That means this turtle, with tag K96432 had come up most likely for a third lay in her nesting season after we had tagged her originally nesting in September. It was nice to share our love for the turtles with Scott, who seemed very interested and excited about the whole experience.

Later once we fuelled up on delicious Vietnamese spring rolls, we headed out to check some tags. We saw many sea turtles. Also, our initial impression was that there were fewer crocs. There were still quite a few about, but not so many. I look forward to going out tonight to see how many female turtles and crocodiles are about. We are still left to wonder when the Flatback’s peak nesting season will start to decline.