Adventures of a Turtle Wrangler
Earthwatch Fellow Lachland Duff joins Hawksbill Turtles on the Great Barrier Reef (May - June 2008) and calls himself the "Turtle Wrangler".
After three to four years of applying, I was finally granted an Earthwatch fellowship from my employer, Wesfarmers Limited.
Wesfarmers have been involved with Earthwatch for over 11 years and have allowed over 86 employees the opportunity to experience first hand the effect that humans are having on our environment.
I found out that I had been awarded the fellowship on the eve of our work Christmas party and it was a night of celebration for me I can tell you. No longer the bridesmaid, finally the bride!
I knew that this project was going to be a physically tough one so for my New Years resolution I vowed to lose weight and get fit. I did not want to get to the project and be an 'anchor'. I wanted to participate! I joined the gym in January and subsequently dropped 15kgs and I am fitter now than I have been since I left school.
I met up with my fellow volunteers in Cairns, another Australian and two Americans. From there we hopped on a light aircraft to Cooktown where we were to connect with the charter vessel that would take us on a 7 hour boat ride to 'our island'.
We arrived at Ingram Island on the Great Barrier Reef at about 3 in the afternoon and were met by the Principle Investigator, Ian Bell and his right hand man on this project, Sam Dibella. All our gear was placed into the tinnie and we were transported across to the island to set up our tents before darkness fell.
After this we had our induction. Safety, procedures, introduction to the satellite phone and the RFDS emergency medical chest. We were also introduced to the other scientists on the project and we would assist with their studies as well as assisting with our primary role, the study of the Hawksbill turtle.
It wasn't long before we got our chance to catch some turtles (after a few failed attempts of course). This is done by standing on the front of a 4metre-long tinnie moving pretty fast and diving slightly ahead of the turtle and grabbing it by the carapace behind the head (known as the 'Turtle Rodeo').
Depending on the size of your turtle you ride it around for a while before it is tired enough for you to 'steer it' in to a vertical position and wait for the catch boat to come along side and attach leg ropes that will help you drag it aboard. The species of turtle that we caught dictated the information we needed to obtain from each turtle for recording into the data base.
The Hawksbill turtles were all lifted into the boats for returning to the island for a surgical procedure known as a Laparoscopy. This procedure is used to determine the gender of the turtles, how mature each turtle is and whether or not the females had bred before or if they were going to lay eggs this season. These turtles were weighed and measured before releasing them back into the water.
The Green turtles needed to have blood samples and genetics taken as well as carapace measurements before being tagged and released. This information was being used to determine pollution levels from fertilisers and heavy metals. Loggerhead Turtles we simply measured on the outside of the boats and tagged before sending them on their way.
Catching juvenile turtles at night was the most exhilarating experience of the trip. These little blokes use the high tides to sneak up into the edge of the mangroves to sleep in an attempt to hide from predators such as tiger sharks. We used a spotlight to find the turtles and then used the rodeo method to catch them. The 'juvies' are much more nimble than the older turtles and they use every obstacle and trick to evade capture. We are also operating in fairly shallow water which makes it interesting.
At the current rates of mortality the future looks fairly grim for the marine turtle. Apart from hunting using non traditional methods, the adolescent and mature turtles must endure ghost nets, boat-strike and predation from natural enemies. The eggs are affected by global warming (temperature defines the gender of the hatchlings) and nests are robbed by traditional hunters and feral animals.
We caught turtles everyday (and some nights) for nearly two weeks in a place where relatively few people will ever visit. When we were catching it was strenuous work, the adrenalin levels were always high and we were wet and cold most of the time, but it was the most rewarding experience I have ever had.
I have confidence that the small role that I played in assisting with the research on this trip will help define future management strategies for the preservation of these magnificent creatures.
Green Turtles - 212
Hawksbill Turtles - 72
Loggerhead Turtles - 2
Dugong - 1
Learn more about Hawksbill Turtles of the Great Barrier Reef and help scientists monitor key nesting and foraging populations of this critically endangered species to develop sustainable management plans.