Case Study: Ningaloo region

Case Study - Ningaloo region

The Ningaloo region is recognised as an area of high ecological importance with unique environmental, social and cultural values. The Ningaloo Reef is Australia’s largest fringing coral reef, extending across 280 kilometres of coastline between Exmouth and Carnarvon, Western Australia. This area is a global biodiversity hotspot and was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2011. Exmouth Gulf has increasingly been seen as critical habitat for humpback whales, dugongs, migratory birds and a range of marine species. Woodside has two offshore assets adjacent to the world heritage area being Nguijima-Yin and Pyrenees Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) facilities.

To better understand and manage the environmental features of the region, Woodside has supported a range of multi-years projects through our environmental partnerships program. These projects have focused on iconic species and habitats across a range of different ecosystems both along the Ningaloo Reef and Exmouth Gulf.

Understanding Ningaloo Reef - Ningaloo Outlook (CSIRO)

Within the Ningaloo World Heritage Area, in 2023 Woodside continued to support a project called Ningaloo Outlook with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) which continues to improve the understanding of Ningaloo’s reef systems and their iconic inhabitants. Ningaloo Outlook also supports a PhD scholarship program and involves active participation by Woodside staff and the community of Exmouth, including students and teachers from the local school. To date, the research has included 52 expeditions involving dozens of researchers, who took a myriad of measurements and deployed a wide range of instruments from autonomous underwater vehicles to satellite tags. Researchers have tagged over 300 individual turtles, whale sharks and coastal sharks using technologies ranging from simple metal tags to more complex acoustic and satellite tags. More than 1,000 members of the public, including school children, participated in the research and education. Many more were engaged through public presentations and online tools. In 2023, the Ningaloo Outlook program undertook five expeditions to Ningaloo Reef and published three research papers in international peer reviewed journals and provided four public presentations to the local Exmouth community. In addition, over 300 individuals were actively involved in either the research or education programs. The program continues to support future science capability, funding four PhD students in 2023.

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Image credit: CSIRO, turtles team

Monitoring and Management of Ningaloo Turtles (DBCA)

The Ningaloo Turtle Program (NTP) was established by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions and partners in 2002 and is a flagship community volunteer turtle-monitoring program. The program tracks marine turtle nesting activity on an annual basis providing long term trends for species such as green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles which feed, rest and nest within the Ningaloo Marine Park and Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area.

The 2022/2023 season was the 21st of the NTP. Fifty-one volunteers (with assistance from ten Woodside personnel) contributed 3253 hours to turtle nesting beach monitoring patrols. A total of 5841 nesting events (nests and false crawls) were recorded for three species of marine turtle: green, loggerhead and hawksbill. The season was the third busiest for hawksbill turtles with well-above average number of nests. Overall, the 2022/2023 season ranked 13th busiest since records began back in the 2002/2003 season. Two tagged turtles were resighted. The turtles were tagged back in 1992. A total of 15 stranded turtles were rescued and returned to the ocean. Outreach activities about turtle nesting, code of conduct for turtle watching and the NTP were made to over 200 students from kindy to year 4.

Images ©NTP/Craig Duncan

In 2023, Woodside supported an expanded geographical assessment of ghost crab predation on turtle hatchlings via a PhD research program with Edith Cowan University and Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA). The study revealed the primary threat to emerging turtle hatchlings, is the golden ghost crab (an endemic crab species to Ningaloo) with crabs predating turtle hatchlings immediately after emergence from nests as well as burrowing down into the egg chamber while the eggs are incubating. The study found that these ghost crabs are a major predator of green and loggerhead turtle hatchlings, at the major rookeries within the Ningaloo Coast UNESCO World Heritage Area.

The NTP and ghost crab research supports the long-term ecological understanding of these threatened and migratory marine turtle species and allows for better environmental management at key nesting locations in Western Australia.

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Movement and behaviour of northbound migrating Pygmy Blue Whales from the Ningaloo Region

The offshore waters of Ningaloo are important foraging habitat for pygmy blue whales, a threatened and migratory species. Working with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and its research partner, Centre for Whale Research (CWR), Woodside supported a satellite tagging program in May 2023 off Ningaloo. To locate pygmy blue whales over a large area off Ningaloo, vessel-based observations, aerial surveys (via spotter plane) and in-water listening stations were utilised. When sighted a small, fast-moving vessel was used to approach an individual pygmy blue whale and attach satellite tags. Unfortunately, weather conditions were unfavourable for whale tagging for the majority of the 11-days on site but one whale was successfully tagged with a GPS tag and dive logger. This whale swam more than 2000 km to just east of Timor-Leste in around six weeks with diving depths of up to 300 m. The importance of Ningaloo offshore waters for whales was confirmed with the researchers reporting over 100 pygmy blue whale sightings and acoustic detections of their vocalisations on the field trip, as well as active feeding by pygmy blue whales and even a number of sperm whale sightings.

Building on research supported over the last three years on pygmy blue whales, the data collected highlights the northbound migratory pathways of individual whales are largely within the designated migratory biologically important area (BIA). Further, using the data from the dive loggers, migratory swimming, exploratory dives, foraging and actual feeding behaviours were identified. Foraging and feeding occurred at known feeding locations, as well as outside these areas. Pygmy blue whales were lunge feeding at depths >300 m depth in canyon habitat of the slope environments and off the continental shelf edge. At Ningaloo there is evidence of more shallow feeding. From the low number of tagged whales tracked through the NWS area the whales are clearly migrating rapidly through the region, with much lower residency than at Perth Canyon (their main feeding area in WA). 

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Migratory Shorebirds of Exmouth Gulf (Birdlife Australia)

The Exmouth Gulf, adjacent to the Ningaloo Coastal World heritage Area, is an extensive area comprising a myriad of diverse coastal and marine habitats supporting resident and seasonal threatened species, including internationally significant numbers of migratory shorebirds. Woodside partners with Birdlife Australia to collect scientific information required on the actual species present, their distribution, abundance and behaviours with the Exmouth Gulf area.   

In 2023, two fieldtrips were undertaken within the Exmouth Gulf to capture migratory shorebirds to compare the the population connectivity and site fidelity of Exmouth birds with shorebirds captured elsewhere in Western Australia. Between the two trips, 273 birds have been captured and fitted with engraved leg flags, and a further 10 Bar-tailed Godwits, of one of the largest shorebird species, were tagged with a small satellite transmitter.  This tagging program provides first insights into the finer-scale ecological movements, feeding and roosting habitats as well as route and incredible distances covered on their international migratory journeys (25,000 km round trips) of this iconic, shorebird species. Community and Indigenous Ranger program outreach and capacity building programs so far have included three events with over 60 participants.

All research was carried out in accordance with State and Federal permitting requirements including steps to ensure animal welfare.

  1. a Sandlering from the February catching trip resighted 15km further North (photo William Greer)
  2. A great knot ready for release (photo Jeremy Ringma)

King Reef within Exmouth Gulf

King Reef became Australia’s first integrated artificial reef in 2018, repurposing steel structures donated from Woodside’s Griffin Field augmented with purpose built concrete reef modules. The reef was a result of a five-year community vision, which was expanded due to the formation of a consortium including the Western Australian State Government, academia, engineers, Woodside and Recfishwest. King Reef experienced rapid colonisation post deployment, exceeding the expectations of abundance, species diversity and biomass of fishes observed at natural reef and sand habitats in the Exmouth Gulf. Over 100 species of fish were observed through community monitoring in the first four years. The reef is now championed by the local recreational fishing community, supported by a Woodside funded reef monitoring and citizen science project and is a pioneer of successful marine habitat enhancement, utilising repurposed infrastructure from the oil and gas industry. In 2022, the ongoing King Reef research and monitoring program supported the local community and contributed over 100 hours of baited remote underwater video footage on the reef. This included what experts believe to be the first sighted juvenile red emperors on film in the Exmouth Gulf. The baited remote underwater video footage has also driven community engagement by highlighting the reef’s rapid ecological development.

In 2023, Woodside and Recfishwest began a new science program to run over the next two years to document and quantify biodiversity value of the attached marine life (sponges, soft corals etc) creating natural habitat on the introduced hard substrate.

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King reef marine life. Credit: Violeta J. Brosig from Blue Media Exmouth