Volunteering on Heron Island

Marine turtles have nested on parts of the Queensland coastline for thousands of years, and now more than ever, as we spend increasingly more of our active lives in coastal areas, turtles require our cooperation and conscious decision making to ensure that our lifestyles don’t negatively impact theirs. I’ve loved animals and have had an interest in working with them ever since I can remember, so when I began a Wildlife Science degree and heard about an opportunity to participate in turtle monitoring and research on the Great Barrier Reef, I signed up straight away. Little did I know it would be one of the most profound and meaningful things I’ve ever been a part of.

Fast forward four years from that momentous first experience, and I’ve just returned from yet another eventful volunteer trip to Heron Island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef. A small but incredibly diverse island, Heron is a major nesting site for Green turtles, with thousands of females coming ashore between October and March to lay their eggs. There are no mammalian predators like wild pigs or foxes on the island to dig up and eat the eggs, so the hatch rate is pretty high. However, there are seagulls, crabs and sharks waiting in the shallows and on the nearby reef for the hatchlings once they emerge, not to mention the rest of the oceanic food chain once any survivors make it past the reef! So despite the fact that each nesting female turtle lays multiple clutches of 80 or more eggs per season, hatchling mortality is high, with usually only 1 in 2000 surviving until they’re mature enough to reproduce. Turtles that do survive can live for over one hundred years, and its because of these incredibly long life spans that it would take many, many years of researching their lifestyles and behaviour in order to fully understand them. Luckily enough, this research on nesting turtles in Queensland began back in the early seventies and is still going strong.

As a volunteer, work begins at the night time high tide, which is when most of the nesting female turtles will begin to emerge. Every nesting turtle is tagged, measured and recorded. As the season goes on, and hatchlings begin to appear in higher numbers, every nest of hatchlings that emerge throughout the night is also marked and recorded. As dusk settles each day, we return to selected nest sites from which hatchlings have already emerged over the previous few days. We excavate these nests and count empty egg shells, to determine how many hatchlings successfully emerged. We also record additional data concerning the nest including any predated, undeveloped, or unhatched eggs and the location and depth of the nest. All of our data is entered into a database, where each adult turtle has their own file. I found it incredibly interesting and rewarding to browse the history of each individual turtle that I spent time with, and see that some were arriving for the first time ever, whereas others had consistently returned to Heron for a number of consecutive years. Whilst most of the research involves adult nesting turtles, we also snorkel in the shallow waters around the island to find, catch and tag juvenile green turtles. Occasionally, satellite trackers are applied to juveniles. Knowing what these turtles do in the earlier stages of their lives can allow us to understand the species as a whole and help see the bigger picture when it comes to conserving them.

Being a part of this program has been a roller coaster of emotions, from excitement and wonder, to sorrow and despair. That is the beauty of having a powerful encounter with nature – you realise that there’s a dark and light side to all situations and it makes you feel small. I’m forever grateful to the experts, academics and friends that I’ve met and learnt from over the last four years. I will always remember the quiet moments spent sitting in the dunes under the moonlight with a big mother turtle as she fulfils her destiny, quietly creating history and securing the future of her species. Theres something humbling about the gaze of an ancient, gentle giant. After seeing first-hand the obstacles that marine turtles face every day just to survive, I’ll never pass up an opportunity to educate people about the importance of being environmentally conscious and preserving ocean habitats.
After all, as Steve Irwin believed, if you can save one, you can save the species.

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