Beaches viewed from above helping to tell Kimberley turtle story

More than 40,000 aerial photographs of the Kimberley coast have been taken and scrutinised for signs of nesting turtles as part of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) turtle research project.

Information about adult females and turtle hatchling numbers and species gleaned from tracks seen in the images of more than 2500 islands and 1300 mainland beaches is now being verified through a process of ‘ground truthing’.

The aerial and ground surveys are part of the distribution and abundance facet of the WAMSI Kimberley Research Program’s sea turtle project that aims to identify when and where turtles nest, develop climate change models to predict how turtles might be impacted and work out relationships between different turtle nesting groups.

Aerial view of the winter-nesting flatback turtle rookery at Cape Domett, north of Kununurra, showing turtle tracks and a lurking crocodile. (DPaW)

Department of Parks and Wildlife senior research scientist Dr Tony Tucker said more than 90 per cent of the Kimberley coastline’s available turtle nesting habitat was accessible only by foot, boat or helicopter posing significant challenges for field surveys.

“The aerial images taken during the summer and winter surveys in 2014 have helped identify hotspots of relative density for follow-up by ground survey,” he said.

The ground truthing phase of the project, started during 2015, will continue this year, as will work on the other facets of the project.

Dr Tucker said, during the ground surveys, tissue samples had been collected from more than 700 turtles, including a rare WA sample from an olive ridley turtle, and by the end of the year the number of samples could be close to 1000.

“The genetic analysis will help us work out the relationships between groups of nesting turtles and define breeding units for the four predominant nesting species,” he said.

“We need to know what are the breeding groups for summer and winter-nesting flatback, green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles to protect and conserve these species through effective strategic management of habitats.”

Dr Tucker said the sea turtle project team was working with 10 different Traditional Owner groups who had assisted in the ground surveys and were helping to establish how traditional and scientific knowledge complemented each other.

Partners in the WAMSI Kimberley sea turtle project include Parks and Wildlife, The University of Western Australia, CSIRO, Griffith University and Pendoley Environmental. The project will provide a knowledge base for future monitoring and information to help understand if populations are increasing or decreasing.

It will also develop effective and efficient monitoring methods that can be conducted over the long term and build capacity amongst Indigenous ranger groups to enable ongoing monitoring. Together this assists in management across the entire Kimberley, including the four new and proposed marine parks.

Ground view of turtle tracks at Cape Domett. (DPaW)

WAMSI’s $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian Government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy and co-investment by the WAMSI partners.


Kimberley Marine Research Program