Jessica Buckman is used to finding stragglers when she heads out to check recently hatched green turtle nests on Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island.
But the tiny pink creature she found in the neck of one nest on Monday was far from a usual find – a rare albino hatchling that was having a little trouble digging itself out.
“I pulled out a bit of sand [and] he or she was in the middle of it. I was very shocked. It was pretty special to witness,” Buckman tells Guardian Australia from the Great Barrier Reef’s southernmost coral cay.
Colleague Jim Buck has been involved in turtle monitoring work on the reef for more than 30 years, and estimates that just one in every 100,000 eggs laid will result in an albino hatchling.
He’s only ever seen a handful himself and was surprised to find a second in the nest they checked on Monday – one that didn’t make it and was still stuck in its shell.
“It’s difficult to say if there were others because we were not there at the time the hatchlings emerged,” Buck says.
Albinism is an inherited disorder characterised by a total or partial absence of pigmentation, resulting in white or pink specimens. In the animal world, it usually means a very short life because specimens have no ability to camouflage themselves.
In all his years of turtle research Buck has never seen an adult albino turtle, or even heard a report of one being spotted.
Buckman says the hatchling wasn’t the strongest but after some help getting out of the nest, it was able to make the crucial walk to the water’s edge about 10 to 15 metres away.
“They do need to walk down to the water themselves for them to click into the magnetic field of the world, and that’s how they figure out where they are on the map,” she says.
She’s not hopeful, though, that she’ll see it again.
“In general, the normal number for green turtle hatchlings making it to adulthood is one in 1,000. Obviously these guys have a greatly reduced chance of surviving to that stage.”
Buck and Buckman both work in ecosystem management at Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. They play key roles in monitoring the success of green turtle and loggerhead turtle nests there, and on neighbouring Lady Musgrave Island.