Footprints on quiet beach lead to never before seen discovery

At 4:30 am, it was hard to make out what the strange creature returning to the water was, but its footprints held a clue.

Left - footprints leading up the beach. Right - a cluster of footprints where the eggs were laid.
The sudden appearance of strange tracks on a beach south of Mackay resulted in a "very unlikely" find. Source: Mackay and District Turtle Watch

Footprints stretching out of the water and onto a quiet Aussie beach have led to a never before seen discovery of a very rare creature that's got experts “excited”.

Back in December, while most of us were sleeping, Queensland woman Janet Boxall was walking along a beach south of Mackay searching for visiting sea turtles. Although expensive houses have lined Campwin Beach since the 1920s and locals let their dogs run on the sand, it remains an important nesting site for several species.

Along with her sister, she’s become skilled at reading the tracks left by their flippers to work out what type of turtle has been visiting, so they can protect the eggs. It was still dark at 4:30 am, but the prints in the sand were unlike anything she'd seen, and her curiosity led to a months-long investigation.

Boxall did actually see the turtle that made the tracks, but only as it was returning to the sea. “My husband took a photo of her, but unfortunately it was dark so it just came up like a black blur,” she told Yahoo News.

But the photographs of the tracks were clear and they revealed something to the turtle enthusiast that most of us would have missed — the turtle had been walking with an alternate gait. “We immediately thought Loggerhead, because sometimes they occasionally nest on our beaches,” Boxall said.

Despite the early hour, Boxall called an expert from the group they volunteer with, Mackay and District Turtle Watch. Together they dug around the beach and discovered a chamber with 90 eggs – each a little smaller than a ping-pong ball. “Because they were on the beach we relocated them higher up near the cliffs,” she said.

A close up of eggs being laid by an Olive Ridley turtle.
Olive Ridley sea turtles lay large clutches of eggs in the sand. Source: Getty (File)

As exciting as the nest was, Boxall had a vacation planned in Costa Rica, so her sister Shirley Sidey, took over monitoring. After 61 days, it finally “erupted”, but sadly only 47 of the 90 eggs hatched.

“We watched them emerge and go down to the beach. The next day we excavated the nest and there were 12 live hatchlings inside. So we took them out and put them on the sand,” she said.

It was then she spotted a second clue that the turtles were something special. “At this stage I was still thinking it was a Loggerhead, but none of them had the right number of carapace scales on them,” she said.

“So I wondered if there was any possibility of it being an Olive Ridley turtle. There are no recorded instances of them, so it would be very unlikely.”

Intrigued, Sidey returned to looking at pictures of the mother turtle’s footprints from December and realised the skid left by her tummy was too wide. Those pictures were sent to Queensland’s Chief Scientific Officer for the Qld Aquatic Threatened Species Program Dr Col Limpus, who confirmed it was remarkably an Olive Ridley turtle.

Left - a diagram showing baby Olive Ridley turtles. Right - a close up of a hatchling.
Loggerhead turtles have five pairs (occasionalsly six) carapice scales on each side, but the Olive Ridley hatchlings had seven. Source: Dr Col Limpus/Mackay and District Turtle Watch

“There are no historical records of Olive Ridley turtles nesting in eastern Australia. We’ve got records dating back to the 1800s from the early explorers that record turtle nesting – our first record of turtle nesting in eastern Australia comes from Captain [William] Bligh on his way back from Tahiti to Koh Peng in Indonesia,” Limpus told Yahoo.

“And for more than 50 years now, the Parks and Wildlife Service has been systematically organising surveys of marine turtle nesting throughout Queensland, but also keeping a watch in NSW.

“There hasn't been a single record of all of Ridley nesting in eastern Australia in that time. And so this is the first ever record, and that’s biologically extremely interesting.”

Twelve hatchlings in a bucket with sand in it.
Twelve hatchlings were collected and helped further down the sand, towards the water. Source: Mackay and District Turtle Watch

Olive Ridley turtles are one the most abundant sea turtles in the world. However they are listed as endangered because populations severely declined in the twentieth century, and while some nesting sites are now thriving, they are restricted to just a few locations.

“In India you could have 400,000 turtles coming up on a single beach – absolutely magnificent numbers,” Limpus said.

“In Queensland, we have a very modest nesting population in the Gulf of Carpentaria on the West Coast of Cape York Peninsula with a couple of 100 females. But there's been no indication that they're nesting spreads into Torres Strait and comes around on the East Coast.”

Olive Ridley turtles nest just once every two years, so researchers are now patiently waiting to see if she returns in December 2025.

“Populations in neighbouring countries are showing signs of recovery. So I guess we could be optimistic and say, what are the chances that this is actually the beginning of an expansion of the Olive Ridleys to colonise into the Coral Sea,” Limpus said.

“It gives us hope.”

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