Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mud crab in our path

Last night we left a crab pot near the mangroves, so today we went to check on it. We drove through the bumping terrain in the middle of the island to get there. On the way Brett came to a stop all of a sudden and said, “Look”. I expected to see that we ran over a snake or something like that. But when he reversed the quad there was a big mud crab. After stowing him in a homemade bag (made out of net), we drove to the mud flats. Here we found an empty crab pot which the crabs had broken through...bummer. But lucky for us we got a mud crab for dinner anyways.

On the drive back to camp we stopped to throw a few surface lures in the water to see what we could catch. First we had no luck then all of a sudden I had one. I brought it in and saw that I caught a catfish. We let him go since we already have a mud crab to eat. Now I know why Brett brought me…to catch fresh fish to eat!

Nesting patterns

* a critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle

The nesting patterns are intriguing to say the least. We are slowly working them out and we know it is dependent on the tides. The tides here are odd, so it does get complicated. In general there is a low tide in the morning followed by a long build up to a high tide in the afternoon, generally over 3 metres. This is then followed by a quick drop to a ¾ tide over a couple of hours and then a build up over 4 hours to an even higher high tide!

The first few nights we had nesting in the hundreds, indeed on Friday night we saw 310 turtles nest. However last night, less than 20 turtles nested! I have a feeling that the unfavourable tides last night resulted in many turtles coming in the previous night, which is why we saw such variation.

A highlight of last night was seeing three hawksbill sea turtles nesting! Hawksbills are Critically Endangered because of over harvesting. They are targeted for their shells or ‘becko’ which is used for ‘tortoise shell’ products (hairclips, sunglasses, etc). It will be interesting to see if more nest whilst we are here.

Collecting data

Seeing flatbacks nesting again has been awe inspiring. We are in a unique situation where we get to see a lot of turtles nest during the day. No other species of sea turtle nests consistently in daylight hours. It is possible that we have seen more daylight nesting by sea turtles than anyone. It is a great opportunity to be able to observe their nesting behaviours. On an afternoon high tide turtles will, all of a sudden, appear offshore swimming parallel to the beach and lifting their heads as they search for a nesting spot on the beach. Almost simultaneously turtles will then start emerging from the surf and make their way up the beach. Some get to the edge of the tide line and change their minds and turn, then head back out through the waves. In some parts of the island the dunes are quite high and many turtles go to a lot of effort to get over them – just dragging their 200lb weight up the beach is hard enough, let alone trying to get up a steep dune! But they are very determined to ensure that their eggs are not laid in a position where they will get inundated by the tide. Once they find an area they excavate a huge ‘body pit’ with their front flippers, then they start digging an egg chamber with their back flippers, delicately flicking away sand in a coordinated manner. Once dug they will start laying about 50 to 60 eggs, before covering them and patting them with their hind flippers and then ‘filling’ with their front flippers. It is the stage after laying when we collect data when they are still in an almost hypnotic state – we measure and then tag them with small, numbered titanium tags. We record nest location, nesting success and other data. The tags are important as we can identify individual turtles – we can see when they have nested in previous seasons and the time between migration, and in a couple of weeks we will start seeing tagged turtles again which will provide us with inter-season renesting intervals. Some tags will even tell us where they migrate, which can be thousands of kilometres away.

Settling in...

We are slowly settling in to life on Crab Island, getting our every day routines worked out and the camp set up. Life tends to work with the tides on the island – turtle research occurs on the high tide when they emerge to nest, hunting mud crabs occurs on the low tide, fishing is tide dependent depending on location, etc. We have had consistent strong south easterly winds blowing since we got here, but we are expecting the weather to fine up soon. Our camp is becoming quite cosy and we have installed new tables, shelves and shower. The yoga deck, front veranda and shower all have a great view of the water. We have both been learning and playing the didgeridoo when we have spare time. Kelsey discovered we share the kitchen with a harmless northern tree snake and we have also found tree frogs, cane toads, spiders and skinks in camp. Today, some guys from a prawn trawler which has been sheltering behind the island came to shore. Yesterday some friends we had met in Seisia, who had flown their helicopters from Cairns and were now flying back south down the west coast, flew out to Crab Island to buzz us. We got warm waves as we stood on our headland and 3 helicopters flew at eye level along the beach.

One cast, One baramundi... no worries mate!

That’s right I, Kelsey, threw in my first cast up a little mangrove inlet and caught a barramundi!!! Woo-hoo! Who knew I was so good at fishing. So here is what happened…Brett took the first few casts in the Mangroves and had no luck, just a few little bites. Meanwhile I am standing on the side; I don’t think he thought I would get one. Then I stepped up to the plate and cast my blue, squishy, smelly lure. My line went right near a log in the water. Brett said it would be the perfect place to catch one. Then in no time my line was tight. I gave it a few tugs to make sure I hooked him good, and reeled him in. What a beauty! The barra was the perfect size for the two of us to eat without wasting any. So we drove back to camp. On the way Brett cleaned the fish (this way we wouldn’t attract any unwanted guests at our camp). Near camp Brett made a fire, while I seasoned the fish (lemon, herbs, pepper, and olive oil) and rolled it in tin foil. Then we threw it in the fire to cook. I cut up some veggies for on the side too. Thanks to the barra, 20 minutes later we were feasting on a delicious meal. No canned fish for us; we eat in style here.

* fresh barramundi for dinner ....mmm

Friday, August 29, 2008

Our Camp! (by Kelsey)

So we have a nice camp set up now. All we need are some more decorations. It is on a really high dune/hill; which provides us with a great view. The water is a beautiful blue color when the sun is shining on it. Speaking of sun the past few days have been windy and cloudy. Today we can see some more blue sky and it is about 88 F (31 C). I actually don’t mind the wind sometimes because it keeps the mosquitos away. I have to say it was frustrating when we were trying to put up our tent and tarp in the wind.

We collected ghost nets from the beach and recycled them into a mat on the floor, and shelves. We also found a small plastic tub to wash dishes in. We now have a main area covered with a tarp which has a kitchen area, dining area, and storage area. Up a little higher we have our tent to sleep in. Then near there we have hung up a hammock...ahh it is so relaxing! So we just need a few more things to make it feel more cozy. I found some shells to put around for decoration. We are in the process of making a coconut shell path for the entrance. And we still have to set up our shower somewhere. All in all our camp is coming along well.

While searching for things for our camp we found some other interesting things too. We found an aboriginal spear and dugong skull. We cracked into some coconuts which were a yummy snack. Today we are going to fish and/or collect crabs to have for dinner. I hope to catch a barramundi!!!!

Feeling safe

Whilst sharing an island with crocodiles may sound a little dangerous, its not as bad as it all sounds. The last blog highlights that there are a number of crocodiles on the island, and yes crocodiles do have a bad rap. But most crocodiles are small in size and pose no risk. All are very skittish and more scared of us. Crocodiles are only a risk if you put yourself in a risky situation – and that is something we will never do. We have a healthy respect for them. When working at night we have spotlights which allow us to see up to ½ mile away and most crocodiles are predictably in the water before we are within 200m of them. The beach is very wide and typically 100m in most areas and we keep a very wide birth of the waters edge. It is shallow in most areas and you can see a long way during the day. We have protocols in place and it is all about being ‘croc wise’ – we never ever ever put ourselves in a position where we are in danger. It is a big island and we feel safe. Our camp sits at the top of a steep 10m high dune which acts as a natural barrier and we are set back 300m from the water. We bury our food scraps away from camp and clean fish at the other end of the island. We never work alone and we never walk the beach at night. The ATVs provide an extra level of safety and we only travel along the top of the beach far from the water. When working on turtles we work in pairs and only work on turtles in safe positions far from the water. Crocodiles are a part of life on Crab Island, but with common sense they pose little danger and we feel very safe.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Weaving through Crocodiles

Last night was our first run around the island on the ATV. Once again, Crab Island has thrown up some more surprises and we came back to camp on a real high after witnessing some amazing sights! It was great to see flatbacks again and we had 230 nest last night. But what had us both gob smacked were the crocodiles…. And lots of them! The story goes… We were heading towards the north of the island on the western beach and shining the spotlight ahead. We had already counted over 15 crocs which had blown us away, but all of a sudden there were over 30 red eyes reflecting back at us. Assuming they were rufous night herons, it wasn’t until we got closer that we realised that there were over 15 crocodiles ranging up to 4m in size spread across the beach. We slowly weaved through them and had crocs scattering all around us back to the ‘safety’ of the water. It was an awesome sight and totally unexpected. What we are most likely seeing is a congregation of saltwater crocodiles which have travelled to Crab Island to feast on the hatchlings. Indeed, our investigations this morning found that the area where the crocodiles had concentrated had seen a flurry of hatchling activity and we found croc tracks intersecting hatchling tracks, along with hundreds of pelican and night heron tracks.

What makes this amazing is that saltwater crocs are normally fairly solitary and do not congregate in numbers. But our guess is we are sharing the island with well over 50 crocodiles!

Finally on Crab Island!

We have finally arrived at Crab Island!! We spent the trip on the mothership Tropic Paradise’ talking to and answering lots of questions from people from all over the globe including Canada, America, Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, France and Australia! They were all very interested in our research, but most thought we were a little crazy, and others wondered how we would cope spending 5 weeks in such an isolated and hostile area. To us this is paradise – the landscape and the wildlife is fascinating, the isolation absorbing and every corner we turn there is something new.

We landed on Crab with the wind blowing over 30 knots! Our attempt to land in front of the camp site was thwarted by the barrage of waves. So Captain Greg found a more sheltered section and anchored 500m offshore. We then craned our zodiac into the water and ferried gear to the island. We were farewelled with excited waves from the top deck as Tropic Paradise sailed over the horizon…

It is now just us, the turtles and crocodiles!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Loading the 'Tropic Paradise' in Seisia

Today we spent the morning preparing and loading the vessel 'Tropic Paradise', a mother ship which runs professional fishing tours down the remote west coast of Cape York. We met Greg Bethune this morning who runs the company Carpentaria Seafaris (, and is regarded as one of the best fishing guides in Australia. He has been more than generous in helping us out and dropping us, resupplying and picking us up at Crab Island.
Tomorrow Greg has 9 clients flying in from all over the world to spend 1 week fishing the west coast of Cape York. On his way down he will drop Kelsey and I off at Crab. Our zodiac will be craned into the water with one of the ATVs onboard, whilst the rest of the gear will be transported to shore via one of the 5 long boats.
The wind is so strong at the moment the birds are flying backwards! Hopefully the weather will improve in coming days.

We are both very excited about landing on Crab Island tomorrow.....!!

* You can see our boat and gear on the top deck of 'Tropic Paradise' in the photo above (In the background is an illegal foreign fishing vessel from Indonesia which has been seized by Customs).

Back In Australia (by Kelsey)

Hello, Kelsey here...Flying in from my long flight from America I was dreaming about being back here; and now I am back to have another great adventure. I know many of the Americans reading this think I am crazy to be heading out to live on an island with crocodiles, snakes, etc. But somehow my fears seem to dissapear when I am with Brett. This is only one of our great adventures and I look forward to sharing it with him. The drive up to Siesa went of the highlights was seeing and touching a blue tongue lizard. It was so cool! There were some rough patches in the road on the way up, but I have no complaints. I am loving every bit of it. It was fantastic waking up with the ocean only 20 yards (meters) away the past 2 days. Listening to the waves is so soothing. I have been so tempted to jump into the water...but then I am brought back to reality when I see a 3 1/2 meter (11.5 ft) croc just offshore. Though this cabin on the water is nice, I can't wait to be back on Crab Island tomorrow.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Beautiful Seisia..

We are back in beautiful Seisia, at the most northerly point in Australia - swaying palms, white beaches and turqouise waters! we are now closer to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea than we are to Cairns! Once again, the locals have been friendly and welcoming and we have learnt so much already.....

Cape York

Kelsey and I have once again reunited for another big adventure! After getting supplies and fresh food from the great tropical markets in Cairns we set off for Cape York. It is always hit and miss the road conditions, however we experienced a relatively smooth 1000km of dirt track all the way to the top. The first night we set up camp on the banks of the Coen River and were treated to the spectacle of seeing one of the biggest flying fox colonies in the world departing their roost at dusk. The sky was blackened with hundreds of thousands of bats. We then sat on a sand bank on the river and were surrounded by thousands of swirling bats coming down and drinking within metres of us. A great experience!