Visitors to Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef can not only get up close and personal with six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle, they can also be part of their preservation.
These sages of the sea are celebrated each year on May 23, with World Turtle Day, a day that aims to bring more attention to the majesty and plight of turtles around the world and coincides with the beginning of the breeding season for turtles in the northern hemisphere.
Queensland is at the forefront of turtle ecotourism, at places located in the Southern Great Barrier Reef like Mon Repos, Lady Elliot and Heron Islands tourists are privileged to view the ancient mariners dragging themselves up the beach to nest, followed by the scurry of hundreds of hatchlings in to the ocean under a moonlit sky.
Elisa Detrez from France says her Queensland turtle experience is the most unique thing she has ever done, “I love wildlife and turtles are something really exotic for me, coming from France. So I think I am the luckiest girl in the world to have seen that and yeah, to experience this.”
Mon Repos is home to the most significant loggerhead turtle nesting population in the South Pacific Ocean region, and a regular nesting site also for flatback and green turtles between November and March.
Queensland Government researchers have been tagging and GPS tracking turtles for 40 years learning about breeding and migration patterns. It’s estimated a million turtles feed in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, making it a very important location globally for the species survival.
“It’s a very moving experience for a lot of people who have a limited exposure to wildlife,” says Dr Col Limpus, Chief Scientist with the Threatened Species Unit at the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.
“The opportunities we provide to the public to come and enjoy turtles at places like Mon Repos is extremely valuable for having a public awareness about these animals and being able to see them first hand rather than just watching them on television.”
Diane Anderson is one of those who volunteers at Mon Repos, and believes watching turtle nesting and hatching should be on everyone’s bucket lists.
“You see the whole life cycle here, you come and see the little hatchlings making their way to the beach and then come back on another night and see the mature turtles laying so it’s a full life cycle here at Mon Repos.”
Queensland is also home to a purpose built turtle hospital at Reef HQ Aquarium in Townsville where sea turtles are nursed back to health.
Some turtles spend up to a year in the hospital after recovering from emergencies like crocodile attacks and boat strikes, but they are always returned to the wild.
“Our staff develop connections with our turtles but we know our end game is to see them go back fit and healthy into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park so while the release day is tinged with a touch of sadness, it’s more happiness when we see them go back,” says Director of Reef HQ Fred Nucifora.
Visitors get to watch turtles be treated in the hospital with no barrier between them and the patients, making it often a quite powerful experience.
Turtle carer Krystal Huff says it’s a pleasure to see people connect with the animals, “I think it’s those big eyes. Turtles are very charismatic when you meet them up close. They’re such a gentle, really beautiful animal, and they’re so ancient. I think people can respect that they’ve been here so much longer than us.”
While Queensland is making large investments in preserving turtle populations, species like the loggerhead leave the Great Barrier Reef and spend years on the other side of the Pacific Ocean where large numbers are reportedly being caught during commercial fishing activity.
“We need to have collaboration coming from the other side of the Pacific to give an assurance that we can guarantee our loggerhead population in to the future,” says turtle expert Dr Limpus.
Turtle excluder devices now widely used in Australia have cut the number of turtle deaths due to commercial trawl fishing.
“They allow turtles to go through trawlers and not be trapped. They can get out so they’re not at risk of drowning. It’s very effective for us here almost eliminated the deaths of turtles in trawl fisheries in eastern northern Australia,” according to Dr Limpus.
Turtles have survived relatively unchanged since the time of dinosaurs, with five out of the reported 10 oldest animals to ever live being turtles or tortoises. In the ocean today are turtles that were alive when Einstein was formulating his theory of relativity, while the battle of Gallipoli raged during World War I, and Babe Ruth was hitting his first home run.