“I saw one! A turtle! It was so graceful! And did you see that shark? Wow!” I’m sitting on a beach at Fitzroy Island in the Great Barrier Reef, gazing at the unbelievably blue ocean and listening to fellow snorkelers recount the wonders they have just glimpsed beneath the surface. Dispirited, I wonder if I’ve been swimming along with my eyes closed, as I’ve yet to see a turtle, or a shark for that matter.
A few hours later, I listen attentively to the island’s resident marine scientist explain why Laila, the 3 and half year old juvenile turtle is being treated at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre (CTRC). During our talk, Laila sidles around the tank, playfully waving her flippers and intermittently poking her inquisitive eyes out of the water. She’s lucky to have recovered from her injuries and will soon been released from whence she was rescued, carrying a satellite tracker on her carapace (shell), so the team at CTRC can continue to research her.
Due to predation on land and in the water, many turtles do not survive into adulthood; a mere 1 out of 1000 hatchlings become adults. Other dangers such as climate change, plastic pollution and fishing practices are now exacerbating risks to turtles.
CTRC are doing a fantastic job at rescuing and rehabilitating turtles in the area, who unfortunately become injured or unwell due to hazards in the ocean and environmental changes. Turtles LOVE to gorge on jellyfish, it’s like their equivalent of chocolate. Unfortunately plastic bags, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in the ocean, look awfully similar to jellyfish. Turtles often unknowingly ingest plastic bags and other forms of plastic, which affects their digestion, making them very unwell.
Climate change, which is affecting oceans, extreme weather events and sand habitats, is hugely impacting turtles. Interestingly, a turtles’ sex is determined by the temperature of the sand in which their eggs are laid. ‘Cool dudes’ arise from cooler, usually deeper, sand; while ‘hot chicks’ result from eggs laid in higher temperatures, usually closer to the sand’s surface. As sand is becoming warmer, 90 to 100% of hatchlings are now female, which could affect the species’ ability to procreate in the future.
Another common issue is entanglement in discarded fishing nets. It is illegal to abandon old fishing nets in the ocean, but it happens frequently and is difficult to police. All manner of sea creatures from turtles right through to whales can become trapped in discarded nets, leading to injury or death. CTRC rescue many turtles which have become injured like this; one poor turtle has had two flippers (one back and one front) amputated because of their severe injuries. Impressively, they can still swim with two out of four flippers!
So what can we do to help?
Avoid using single use plastics, particularly straws, bags and other receptacles such bottles and takeaway containers, opting instead for a reusable option. We can also influence our family, community and workplaces to do so too.
Support sustainable fishing practices (businesses who are much less likely to dump old nets in the ocean), by using the Good Fish app (or similar) or buying seafood with the Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC) label.
Take action on climate change and encourage others – your community, business leaders and politicians to do so too.
With my new found knowledge whirring through my head, I decide to go for one last swim. Majestic, graceful, gliding through the blue, a turtle suddenly appears! Fascinated, I swim alongside it for a while, admiring its magnificence, before leaving it to its sojourn. Grateful for this experience, I exit the water, excited about finally glimpsing the elusive turtle.