The flatback turtle, Australia’s only endemic marine turtle, lives in the tropical waters surrounding our coast - line, with distinct nesting sites in Queensland, the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. They prefer shallow ocean habitats and forage for marine creatures such as sea cucumbers, jellyfish and soft corals.

Flatback turtles are small, with olive-grey skin and a flatter carapace (shell) than most marine turtles. Slow to mature and breeding only once every few years, females return to their hatching beach to lay some 50 eggs. Hatchlings are relatively large which helps them to evade sea birds, monitor lizards and other predators.

 

Flatback turtle hatchlings emerging from the nest - Helen Church
 

Like many marine species, flat - back turtles face many threats. Coastal development degrades nesting beaches and disorients hatchlings with light pollution, and foxes and feral pigs can readily destroy entire nests.

Commercial fishing also takes its toll on adults through entanglement in gillnets, longlines, and ghost nets. Unlucky individuals can also be caught as bycatch in trawling nets and shark control programs. Climate change is likely to also adversely affect these incredible animals. Like many large reptiles, a hatchling’s sex is determined by the incubating egg’s temperature. Natural fluctuations produce an even number of males and females, but rising temperatures are predicted to produce too many females for a balanced population.

However, there is hope for the flatback turtle. Coastal WLT sanctuaries (such as The Roost in Queensland, and Bremer Island Banubanu Beach Retreat in the Northern Territory) are helping protect nesting beaches, often working with Traditional Owners to preserve these turtles and their critical habitat. Eco Beach Wilderness Retreat in Western Australia also supports research and conservation as the site of the Eco Beach Flatback Turtle Annual Monitoring Program, collecting vital data to build our knowledge.

A flatback turtle hatchling travels to the shore - Helen Church 

In 2000, Humane Society International secured the flat - back turtle’s listing as Vulnerable (joining Australia’s five other threatened marine turtles). The Federal Government now has a recovery plan to reduce threats to marine turtles and recover diminished populations.

A long-serving member of Australia’s Marine Turtle Recovery Team, HSI achieved legal recognition of prawn trawling and marine debris as key threats to marine turtles, requiring the Australian Government to develop a national plan to tackle these problems. Our work along side global NGOs also saw the adoption of Turtle Excluder Devices in trawl fisheries, saving thousands of marine turtles every year. Exclusive to Australia, it is imperative that we protect the flatback turtle and its fragile habitats, both on a local and a species-wide scale.