The Inland Sea: Nesting flatback sea turtles

26 January 2012

Written by: Steinar Ellingsen

Port Hedland is the biggest town in the dry, harsh and iron ore-rich Pilbara region. It’s a sleepy ghost town the first week of  the new year. The port is quiet, the town seemingly empty. Rusty old machinery is scattered everywhere and we can’t make up our minds as to whether it’s like an open-air museum for the mining industry or a graveyard for obsolete technology.

Only minutes away, on Cemetery Beach, a natural spectacle is taking place that makes us forget all about the iron ore.



There are seven species of sea turtles. The flatback turtle is the only one that is exclusive to Australia. Unlike other sea turtles, the flatbacks don’t undertake long oceanic migrations, and their habitat only stretches around the coast from Western Australia to Queensland.

Check out our image gallery of the nesting flatback turtles here.

Sea turtles have been around for an estimated 65 million years, but it appears that numbers across species are declining.

Currently all sea turtles are regarded as protected. However, the flatback turtle is quite understudied. It is regarded by the IUCN as data deficient, and it’s therefore difficult to properly assess its status.

Beyond collecting data, raising awareness is another important part of what the local environmental group Care for Hedland is doing. As the local mining industry and the township itself are fast developing, Care for Hedland is out there every day to catalogue the turtle activity and to try and make the human impact on the creatures as minimal as possible.

The town of Port Hedland was founded in 1863 by Captain Peter. For obvious reasons at the time, he originally named it Mangrove Harbour, but the Surveyor-General renamed it shortly after in the good captain’s honour.

However, it wasn’t until gold was discovered locally in 1883 that the town began to slowly develop, and a jetty was built to provide the first export point in Australia’s northwest.

Since the 1960s it’s more about the iron ore and after recent developments and dredging, the deep water port is now Australia’s busiest.

You’ll now find 260,000-tonne, 315-metre cargo ships docking here. They are quite a noticeable presence in the small town, as is the 7-kilometre freight train that runs between the town and Newman 426 km to the south, transporting iron ore from the mines to the port.

Image gallery from the industrial town of Port Hedland here.

You could easily fit the entire population of 15,000 aboard that train. Call me naïve, but I find that somewhat remarkable.

In a way I think that mental image paints a picture of how BHP Billiton appears to be positioned in the community, as the main player in the local mining industry.

Perhaps, a suitable nickname could be ‘(BHP) BillitoWn’?

Just a thought.


Steinar Ellingsen is a Norwegian journalist and photographer, and a Journalism lecturer at La Trobe University. He’s currently making a documentary webseries chronicling a ten-week odyssey in Australia, as part of a practice-based PhD at La Trobe University.

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