When it came time to apply for my annual volunteer research trip to the Great Barrier Reef, I found myself caught off guard by mixed feelings about whether I should go ahead with it or not.
It’s something I’ve done for seven years, and I’ve always loved everything about it – the beautiful location, the hands on approach to research, and teaching members of the public about sea turtles and ocean conservation.
But this time around I was having doubts about whether or not another year in the same place would really serve me. Although the money isn’t a big issue, travelling to and from the island and expenses while there can be a bit of a strain, and let’s face it – I don’t earn a killing from my day job. Plus, I had some pretty ambitious (read: expensive) travel plans for this year that I wanted to act upon.
I made the heavy decision to take the season off, and felt ok about it. But then, as though a sign from the universe, my lovely father sent me a link to an advertisement on LinkedIn calling for volunteers for a sea turtle research program on an island off the coast of Western Australia.
It was basically the same work I had been doing as a volunteer for many years – patrolling beaches around the nighttime high tides for nesting sea turtles, tagging and gathering data from said sea turtles, recording all of the information, and having an awesome time. Just on the other side of the country and for an environmental company who were employed by the large, multi-national oil and gas company known as Chevron.
The program intrigued me – enough to convince me to go ahead and apply, despite reading that over 300 people had applied for a mere 70 odd positions. The stars aligned and I was accepted after a friendly phone interview with one of the team leaders.
I was excited to fly to Western Australia, the far away red land, the place I was born but have never returned to. The trip came around quickly and before I knew it I found myself at Perth airport at 4:30am with the rest of the weary eyed turtle tagging crew, ready to fly to Barrow Island.
We took a while to wake up and start introductions, friendly chats and tales of turtle tagging pasts, but within the first 48 hours we’d formed a pretty solid team vibe and working together was a breeze.
We stayed in the same FIFO camp that all of the Chevron employees stayed in, and the facilities were pretty impressive. Photos are strictly forbidden, so you’ll have to use your imagination.
Anyone who has ever worked FIFO will know what I’m talking about, but if you haven’t, just picture a cross between an American summer camp and prison. I mean this in the most neutral way possible – I honestly enjoyed it.
The living quarters were large, two-storey, winged buildings made up of hundreds of small individual rooms with ensuites. In the centre of these buildings, on both floors, you found multiple common rooms, kitchens and laundries that were kept immaculate. The camp had swimming pools, gyms, sporting fields, walking tracks etc. and we were free to use them as we wished.
There were large dining rooms that served buffet style meals twice a day, and another self-serve meal room for making packed lunches. Meals were served at odd times due to the crazy hours of FIFO workers, but we were also working strange turtle related hours so had no issues. When we weren’t tagging turtles, we were lounging by the pool, watching movies together in common rooms, or jamming in the fully equipped music room.
Our work took place on the 8 different beaches surrounding the large gas plant operated by Chevron. We usually patrolled beaches in pairs around the evening high tides, so most of our work took place between 9pm and 3am – physically taxing but mentally invigorating.
We’d meet up an hour before our start time to debrief, discuss any questions or concerns, do some warm up stretches and usually exchange a fair bit of banter. We travelled via minivans to the different beaches as they were quite spread out.
Equipped with full on PPE, including steel toe boots, long pants and long sleeved shirts, gloves, safety glasses and hard hats was a challenge – it was mid-January on the west coast which means it was desperately hot and humid, especially when walking 10kms+ on soft sand per shift – even at night time! We were a smelly bunch, to say the least.
We monitored, tagged and marvelled over the beautiful female Flatback turtles that graced us with their presence. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, theres nothing quite like being in the presence of one of these ancient gentle giants as they carry out the long, mysterious, physically exhausting nesting process.
When the tides shifted, and the high was in the early evening, we got to do a few day shifts and see these beauties in the daylight – always such a blessing!
Not only did we have the privilege of participating in this amazing research program, but we were lucky enough to be taken on a couple of day trips to some fascinating and historically significant areas of the island. ‘Boodie Cave’ was an absolute highlight – scientists recently discovered evidence that some of the earliest Australians known lived there approximately 53 000 years ago.
The wildlife on the island was another surprise – so many species unique to that area and the Perenties had absolutely no fear! They’d walk right up to us and start digging up eggs and hatchlings to feast on – true predators.
We were uni students, tree planters, marine scientists, parents, police officers, photographers….the list goes on. But we were all united for our common love of nature and sea turtles and the desire to participate in something larger than ourselves. It’s amazing how fun it can be to get to know someone when you spend a few hours together on the beach with no technology barriers, just pure open conversation.
I learned so much on this trip, particularly the importance of saying yes to opportunities that spark your interest and make you nervous…. heres to many more experiences like this in the future!