Where science meets soul
It could have been sensory overload, but the rhythmic flap of the wings from the Jabiru flying overhead and the serene look on the face of our skipper, Sean, gave a different, calming message. Standing at the bow of the tinny, not knowing whether to focus on the Jabiru; or on the squadron of pelicans that were sunning themselves on a beachy islet to port; or on the spotted ray that was scooting along the shallow waterway; I opted to just listen to the quietly spoken words from Sean as he retold stories of the rock art on the black, craggy island off to starboard. It was a unusual day in the life of an Li-Anthawirriyarra Sea Ranger, as ordinarily the young Yanyuwa man is not accompanied by four inquisitive, salt encrusted, sunburnt white women. This was indeed a different day for all of the Sea Rangers, as it fell midway during Mamadthamburra Turtle Camp, a two week period where the West Island of the Sir Edward Pellow Group in the Gulf of Carpentaria is a hive of activity for those associated with Yanyuwa/Marra Traditional Owners and their annual Flatback Turtle Research camp.
The two week turtle camp has been occurring for more than a decade, gathering valuable data to inform management plans aimed at ensuring the longevity of the Wirndiwirndi (flatback) species. The science of Turtle Camp occurs under the watchful eye of Scott Whiting, who collects and collates the data and, as a consequence, is able to rattle off impressive statistics that indicate that the islands are home to a very healthy wundunyuka (sea turtle) population. For the Yanyuwa this aspect of the camp is significant, but it is only when the information is combined with their ancestral knowledge by their own people, that the true essence of the camp is realised. Turtle camp is not only about research, or culture, or family, or community, or place, or enterprise; it’s about all these things together that combine as a way forward for the Yanyuwa to ensure that their children, and their children’s children, experience and know their country as their forebears have.
As part of planning for the future, the Yanyuwa have introduced a tourism enterprise to the camp. Four very plush safari tents have been erected on a patch of pristine beach, and paying guests are treated to a visitor experience akin to no other in Australia. Combining an extraordinarily remote and beautiful location, an authentic indigenous community experience, and exposure to nationally significant sea turtle research, Turtle Camp is only accessible for a privileged few for two weeks of every year during September and October. In addition to witnessing the nesting and hatching of the sea turtles, there are activities that can be ticked off in a usual tourist sense and which include fishing in waters where you can choose your catch and expeditions to parts of Australia where very few white people have been. The intriguing thing about the camp though, is that it doesn’t conform to “usual tourist” expectations. It is adventure, eco and indigenous tourism all rolled up together in one fascinating package. The presence of the camp is about turtle research, however the soul of the camp is about the Yanyuwa people, their stories, and their resources and how they are managing their country. Turtle Camp operates on Aboriginal time, and experience is dependent on guest interest and input and who and what is around at the time. For those with the spirit of adventure, Turtle Camp is where science meets soul.
To have this privileged experience as Sea Darwin staff did, or for further information about the camp, contact [email protected]