Turtles return to the sea

Fishos who’ve spent some time in Australia’s north will no doubt have encountered sea turtles at some time or another. These amazing creatures are a common sight offshore in regions such as Cape York and much of Far North Queensland. An amazingly graceful animal in the water, in contrast to the somewhat ungainly version that crawls up on beaches to lay eggs, a turtle’s common “up periscope” antics close to fishing boats has at first glance been known to startle many a boat-based fisho. 

Unfortunately, turtles on the whole have many life threatening obstacles put in their way – many man made – that prevent them living a long, healthy life. Boatstrikes are common, as are problems caused by the ingestion of plastics such as shopping bags, six-pack holders andnylon fishing nets, as well as cigarette butts. Boaters, please takeyour rubbish home with you and slow down when operating near knownturtle habitats.

Humans rarely have a positive impact on our marine environment, so it was exciting to watch first-hand as the reefHQ turtle hospital staff prepared green turtles Torres and Barney for release on Townsville’s main beach last week.

Barney is about three years old and had been in the hospital for two months suffering from kidney problems. A high protein diet and antibiotic injections had restored him to full health and he was ready to make his way back into the wild.

Hospital staff say it is both rewarding and sad when their “friends” are returned to the ocean, but it was particularly so with Torres, who had been at the hospital for five years.

Torres was kept as a pet on one of the Torres Strait islands (hence her name) but fortunately the children who were keeping her quickly realised they were doing the wrong thing. She was brought to the hospital by scheduled airline service, carried in an ice cream container and weighing only 360 grams. Five years later she weighs in at 45kg. If there was a biomass index for turtles, Torres would be very much on the high side!

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A turtle receives antibiotics at the reefHQ turtle hospital in Townsville. Photo Roger McMillan.

During my visit, vets from James Cook University were fitting Torres and Barney with electronic trackers to monitor their activity for research purposes and to ensure that Torres could cope in the open ocean after so long in the aquarium pool.

First they used a special Sika product to glue an acrylic disk to the turtles’ backs. An hour later, when this was set, they filled in the gaps between the shell and the disk and affixed the tracker, aerial and batteries. All going well, the tracker will continue to operate for about three years, providing much-needed information on the turtles’ activities.

According to reefHQ Director, Fred Nucifora, very little is known about the habits of individual turtles, with other tracking programs around the world throwing up mixed information.

“Some turtles will swim far and wide, others will stay very close to where they were released,” he said. “We’re very keen to get some data from Barney and Torres to see where they head to and how far they travel.”

The first turtles roamed oceans and beaches more than 200 million years ago, making them older than either lizards or snakes. The air-breathing reptiles lay eggs on shore, but for every 1000 eggs that hatch, only one will survive to return to the ocean.

The turtle hospital at the reefHQ aquarium has been operating for less than 12 months but has already attended to 25 sick or injured turtles. Six of the seven species of turtles worldwide are found in the Great Barrier Reef marine park and all are on the endangered list, with some on the critically endangered list.

If you are visiting Townsville and Magnetic Island, and now is a perfect time of year to be doing that, I heartily recommend a visit to reefHQ and a tour of the turtle hospital.

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