We arrived late at night after an all-day driving session from Hamelin Pool. While driving through the park we found the snake species we were looking for – the Pilbara death adder (Acanthophis wellsi).
It was a very small and cooperative individual. We moved it off the road and it sat there while we photographed it. We left it in peace and continued on to a nearby camp site, stopping to usher a spinifex pigeon (Geophaps plumifera) off the road.
We set up camp in the dark (we were getting pretty used to that by now) and went to sleep. We awoke the next day to find we were sharing our camp site with a long-nosed dragon (Amphibolurus longirostris) and a couple of German tourists.
We headed into the nearby town of Exmouth to get some supplies for our stay. You have to be careful driving along the main street in town because there are an awful lot of emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) scavenging by the roadside for whatever they can find.
As we headed out of town we stopped at some beaches to check for any signs of turtle activity. It was the nesting season for a few species of sea turtles, and many of the beaches had the tell-tale tracks of green turtles (Chelonia mydas).
We headed back to one of these beaches at sunset to look for female turtles coming ashore to nest.
As we were taking some pics of (yet another) spectacular sunset, a green turtle emerged from the surf beside us.
We moved up the beach so as not to disturb her and, after hauling herself up the beach, she started to dig her nest. Turtles are very easily spooked during this stage of the nesting process, so we were careful not to disturb her with our movements or lights. First they dig a body pit by flicking sand away with their large front flippers. When this pit is deep enough they excavate a nesting chamber with their smaller back flippers. It is into this smaller chamber they lay 100 to 200 soft-shelled eggs. When they’re laying, they’re remarkably still and basically ‘out of it’. During this phase we were able to take photos by using long exposure times and a dim light.
When she’d finished laying she started to cover her nest over by flicking sand back with her front flippers.
The whole process took an hour or two. It was amazing, and a huge privilege, to be so close to such a large, ancient and impressive animal. The next day we headed down to the beach to see if any turtles were hatching. Sure enough, when we got out of the car we could see a stream of hatchlings heading down to the water. These little turtles are basically on auto-pilot when they emerge, and not even falling into a footprint will stop them. They just power along until they hit the sea, then swim until who-knows-when.
It’s estimated that only about one in one thousand hatchlings will survive to adulthood. The eggs are heavily preyed upon by land-based predators such as goannas and feral pigs. The beach was covered with cat/fox/dog tracks, so I imagine these ferals also have a huge impact on turtle survival. At night, the hatchlings are eaten by the large ghost crabs that frequent the beaches.
During the day, seagulls patrol the beach looking for hatchlings and picking them off. I followed the hatchling in the photos above from when it hatched until it reached the water, only to see it snatched up by a seagull. Any carcasses not completely eaten by the crabs are finished off by the ants.
The hatchlings aren’t the only ones who succumb. Sometimes a female turtle will become disorientated or exhausted after laying her eggs, and never make it back to the sea.
One night, we followed the tracks of a female up a massive sand dune where she tumbled down to the bottom. She couldn’t get back up the same way she came, so she had to make a lengthy detour around the bottom of the dune. We tried to figure out how to help her back to the sea, but ultimately realised there was nothing we could do. We went back the next morning to make sure she wasn’t stuck behind the dune and were happy to see that she had indeed made it back to the water.
We went turtle spotting each night we were at Cape Range, and while driving back to our campsite at night we found a number of critters on the road.
During the hot daytime, we went snorkeling at a few of the sites around the park. Turquoise Bay and the Oyster Stacks both had crystal-clear water, plenty of coral and an abundance of colourful reef fish. We also stumbled upon some cruising green turtles who weren’t the least bit perturbed by our presence. We decided that we need to get an underwater housing for the camera the next time we’re there.
We had wanted to check out some of the gorges in Cape Range to look for black-footed rock wallabies (Petrogale lateralis), but unfortunately there was an aerial goat shooting program going on while we were there. Ranger Ted told us about a gorge that was outside of the park (and therefore one were were able to visit without getting shot) so we headed there one afternoon to see what we could see. Along the way we drove by a pack of rainbow beeaters (Merops ornatus) eating bees and generally being merry. My 105mm macro lens isn’t very useful for birds unless I can get close to them, but I managed to get a few dodgy pics nonetheless.
We continued onto the gorge and reached it at sunset,
We walked along the top of the gorge at dusk, hoping to see or hear some rock wallabies, but only managed to see some euros (Macropus robustus). We came to a rock slide and made out way down into the gorge. With no breeze at the bottom of the gorge, the heat was stifling. We walked along the bottom of the gorge and found some geckoes and insects.
On the drive back we saw a fox skulking along the roadside.
The next day we packed up and left Cape Range. On the way out we saw a perentie (Varanus giganteus) stroll off the road and into the scrub. We of course followed and photographed it. Shortly afterwards, we saw a mulga snake (Pseudechis australis) on the road.
Something that surprised me was the number of road-killed animals we found on the road in the national park, such as this pair of central netted dragons (Ctenophorus nuchalis). It’s a national park, so why people insist on speeding through it is beyond me.
On our last day we went snorkeling in a secluded and very shallow bay. The bottom of the bay was covered in sea grass, and we soon realised that this was a green turtle (Chelonia mydas) feeding ground. We saw half a dozen turtles feeding in the shallows, and unlike the turtles we snorkelled with on the reefs, these feeding turtles were very skittish in this murky water. We got out of the water to leave the turtles in peace. As I walked back through shin-deep water near the beach I nearly stood on a two-metre-long tiger shark (Galeocerda cuvier) cruising through the shallows. Needless to say I left the water completely and decided that it was probably a bad idea to swim in a murky sea turtle feeding area.