Ever wondered where turtles go when they’re out in the ocean? On Wunambal Gaambera Country in the far north Kimberley, Uunguu Rangers have been working to figure this out. And in doing so, they met Shelly: a turtle who travelled 2600km from the Kimberley to the Gulf of Carpentaria!
Five different species of mangguru (marine turtles) live on Wunambal Gaambera country. These are important to Wunambal Gaambera people’s saltwater culture and traditional stories and are foods in their traditional diets. For these reasons, they’re one of the conservation targets in Wunambal Gaambera’s Healthy Country Plan.
Uunguu Rangers and Wunambal Gaambera Traditional Owners work hard to better understand the migratory behaviour of turtles and since 2019, have done several field trips to map their nesting habitats, including aerial surveys, with support from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions.
In November last year, rangers travelled to Ganeyiyerr/Arudjiriba (Jones Island) where they attached satellite trackers to nesting juluwarra/ganmulu (green turtles).
This is where they met Shelly: the turtle that travelled 2600km, otherwise known as Gurdulu (meaning turtle shell in Wunambal Gaambera language). Shelly/Gurdulu was one of three turtles they tagged on the trip.
“It was so good to be up close and next to the turtles. We camped on Jones Island for two nights and had to stay up all night walking around. So when the turtles did head out to sea it was really exciting.”
– Uunguu Ranger, Damon Bundamurra
Through this expert tracking, rangers have been able to map Shelly/Gurdulu's migration from the far north Kimberley all the way to the Wellesley Island Group in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Queensland – a distance spanning over 2,600km.
From their nesting sites in the Kimberley, Green Turtle hatchlings will leave the beach and seek deeper water, with fewer predators, where they’ll spend their first five years or so. Out in the ocean they’re at the mercy of currents and can be swept long distances.
Once they’ve grown to dinner plate size (around 40cm), the diet of Green Turtles will change to seagrass and seaweed, so they’ll settle down onshore somewhere that they can forage and feed on this. They usually stay in these feeding grounds until they’re ready to breed, and then they’ll return to nest on the beaches around where they were born. Green Turtles reach maturity at between 30 and 50 years old and then can breed every two to seven years.
Shelly would consider its home to be the Wellesley islands and the beaches on Wunambul Gaambera country would be its birthplace and breeding ground.
This significant distance travelled, shows some of the challenges the healthy country team face in monitoring mangguru and is a reminder of how important it is to keep all wundaagu (saltwater) country healthy.
Healthy and clean wundaagu country is necessary for mangguru, but turtles also face threats such as pollutants, plastic bags and a changing climate. That’s why Uunguu Rangers undertake this survey work and monitoring to find out more; where they travel, their habitats and how to look after them. This is just one part of the bigger picture of caring for country.
Read more about Uunguu Rangers’ work on the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation’s website.