Freshwater Turtles of the Kimberley
This was the most interesting two weeks of my life. Each and every day was crammed full of fascinating, amazing, interesting, educational, wonderful moments. I'd recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat. A typical day would include snorkelling for turtles, processing them, releasing them and a little sightseeing as we did it. Nancy and Tony (the project’s leading scientists) taught us how to snorkel for turtles, which was something new to me.
We each had a wetsuit, mask, snorkel and flippers and we had to learn not only how to snorkel very quietly (so as not to scare off all the turtles!), but also to dive down to the bottom and back up. Nancy and Tony taught us where the turtles hide and how to spot them. There was always one or two people who were in a canoe while the others were snorkelling. As we caught turtles, we would pass them to the people in the canoe to hold, so that they didn’t weigh us down in the water. It was incredibly peaceful being in the canoe as you are the only one(s) above the water, and the rivers were so picturesque.
Once we’d spent an hour or two snorkelling, we’d take all the caught turtles back to camp to process them. First, Tony would check if they were new or recaptured turtles, and if they were new, he would mark them with notches in their shells. We learned how to read these notches to find out the name/code of each turtle. We would use calipers to measure the carapace (top shell), plastron (bottom shell) and head of each turtle. We would note the species, gender and maturity of each turtle and whether it had any marks from crocodile attacks. We all had to be taught how to do this, none of us knew how to do it before going there, but it wasn’t hard and it was all really interesting. Using some of the older recaptured turtles, Tony was able to show us how much they’d grown since first being captured. That was neat, seeing the immediate application of the data we were collecting.
There were two additional procedures done to some of the turtles – stomach pumping by Nancy or laparoscopies by Tony. To me, that felt like ‘real science’ – assisting them was definitely ‘outside of my comfort zone’ but incredibly fascinating. At one point I asked so many questions that Tony had to stop, address all my questions, then continue. He is a natural teacher though, and loves to explain things. I later wrote down much of what he told us about animal ethics, so that when others viewed the photos of the laparoscopies and stomach flushing, they would understand that the turtles were treated with care, and that the procedures did not harm them.
Nancy and Tony taught us what the data from the stomach flushing and laparoscopies was being used for, and on my return I found myself telling people about the turtles’ place in the food web and how important they are within the ecosystem, and how the impact of the cane toads might affect their diets, and how short necked turtles breed more often than long necked ones and…you get the point!
It made no difference if we were self paying volunteers, uni students or corporate fellows, we each took turns at every single role. We even had a chance to teach others about the work we were doing, and its importance, as people wandered in to camp and asked us about the turtles. The kids were especially interested, but the adults were too, and we found ourselves teaching them about the dangers the cane toads pose to the local flora/fauna and how we are getting the baseline data needed to assess the impacts made by the toads when they arrive. It wasn’t until we talked to the curious onlookers, that we realised how much we’d learnt in such a short time.
Some days were made up of mostly travelling, as there are great distances between some of the rivers in the Kimberley. There was always the most amazing scenery to see though, and Tony and Nancy would stop at certain places to show us things of particular interest. We went to rivers where Nancy and Tony had been catching turtles year after year, and some days we went to scout out new rivers. We quickly learned what made a river ‘turtlelicious’ as Tony called it. Sloping, sandy banks, or banks where the cattle had trampled were not good turtle habitat. Steep banks with lots of pandanus and other vegetation were good. This is of particular interest when you think about the cattle ranches that cover the Kimberley and the impact they must be having on the turtle habitats.
Nancy told us about times when they had local Aboriginal people come along as volunteers on expeditions and the different ways they view things. Turtles are a traditional food for them, and this was one of the issues they talked through, as well as an underlying reason why the turtle populations need to be maintained. The chance to see some rock art for ourselves was incredible. I think over the course of the two weeks, we went to seven different rock art sites, several of which are not known to the general public, and two of which are (or have been) used as ossuaries by the Aboriginal people.
From being a successful member of the team, I have gained two insights - that my skills and my knowledge can have diverse applications, and also that I can do, be and achieve a lot more than I ever thought. I certainly don't need to feel like I'm stuck in one role, one job, because it is all I can do. I have a lot of choices, and I can be a valuable, productive member of a team. That confidence in myself is very welcome. And I think that when people are willing to step out of their comfort zone, that is a good thing for everyone.
Another thing that is very clear after participating in this expedition, is that when people work together, they can achieve a lot more. This is almost the basis of the whole idea of Earthwatch - that the scientists and researchers are doing great things, but they need help. With the help of the supporters, they can accomplish those great things. And even though we volunteers may not have science or environmental backgrounds, we really do make a difference. We enable the scientists to collect their data, complete their studies, achieve their goals… Together, we help make a real difference.
Nancy and Tony said that this was particularly true of their experiences - that they tried to do the studies on their own, but they really struggled. With the help of Earthwatch volunteers, they got so much done that they have now managed to set the baseline data required before the cane toads arrive. I was a part of that. Each volunteer was a part of that. And they couldn't have done it without us. We truly did work together to achieve more than the scientists could on their own. That's a wonderful feeling, and an important lesson for everyone. We can apply that to so many areas of our lives – personal, professional and otherwise.
I will always look on this as an amazing and wonderful experience, that I was so very very lucky to have. I hope that one day I might be able to do another expedition (the one in Madagascar has definitely caught my eye!!), but whether I do or not, I believe I will be more active in conservation around my local community and also more confident about stepping forward to take up opportunities that are offered.
By Elanor Schroder – Wesfarmers fellow
Learn more about Freshwater Turtles of the Kimberley and how you can help scientists collect information on these long-living species.