Sunday, May 12, 2013

Turtles, turtles, everywhere!

Yesterday was the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) National Day of Action in Brisbane. The purpose of the even was to let the pollies know that the youth of Australia want a sustainable future and that if the proposed coal expansions go ahead, it is game over for the Great Barrier Reef and our climate in general. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get to the event but I heard it was a great turn out and great day in general. Here is a video some of the AYCC guys and girls at uni made to raise awareness about the event. 

Even though sometimes I can be shy and reluctant to go to rallies and things such as these, I like to think that I still contribute in at least some little way to conserving the natural environment around us. I suppose people find one area about which they are passionate and they focus on that. While someone else focuses on something else. And someone else focuses on something else again... And so on. This is, in a way, in line with the well-known phrase "think globally, act locally." For the AYCC-ers, this focus is climate change and raising awareness about it among fellow youths, as well as letting politicians know that we actually care about this and it is a topic that will influence where our votes go come election time. For others, the focus can be something as specific as turtles. This is the case for Dr Col Limpus. 

Col is probably THE most famous marine conservationist Australia has ever been able to lay claim to and his conservation, management and education work has touched people and marine animals alike - from Australia to the USA, West Indies, Greece, South America, Saudi Arabia, India, the Pacific, and Japan. His current research focuses on the environmental impacts, population dynamics, ecology and conservation of turtles, crocodiles, dugons, and other marine life.

In January this year I was lucky enough to be able to spend a week in Mon Repos, one of Col's research bases in Queensland, helping out with turtle research. It was one of the most exciting - not to mention exhausting - experiences of my life and I am desperate to have another go at the end of this year or the beginning of next. Everyone who comes to volunteer at such places have similar mindsets and it's always nice to work towards a common goal with people who, at the beginning of the stay, were just strangers. Most of us were from Queensland but there were a couple from NSW, the ACT, and New Zealand, as well as some Brazilian exchange students. There is no better way to make friends than going crazy over turtles and becoming sleep-deprived. You only needed to spend one or two nights at the campsite to be able to participate in the sleep-induced-hysterical  banter that would be thrown back and forth. 

I just realised that maybe the way I'm describing my experience isn't exactly what you would call convincing... However, there really isn't a way to romanticise it: a week at the beach looking out for turtles, beach night walks interspersed with measuring turtle carapaces and weighing turtle eggs and hatchlings... yeah it was a tough time.  (Please read maximum amount of possible sarcasm into the previous sentence.) The second night shift from 12am-7am was a bit of a pain but like I said, makes for hysterical fun the next day. The main reason for the sleep deprivation was the heat - it's impossible to sleep inside a tent when it's 30+ degrees! I wouldn't change anything about my experience for the world though. 

As the South Pacific's largest loggerhead turtle rookery, the conservation of the loggerheads, along with other turtle species, at Mon Repos is a particularly important one. The increasing tourism and development in recent years (especially 5 minutes down the road at Bagara) has resulted in the disruption of the turtles' natural breeding ground. Although things like eating turtle eggs and riding turtles for fun don't happen anymore in this part of the world, the artificial lights from surrounding areas confuses the hatchlings when they are trying to go to sea for the first time. 

The 'Cut the Glow' campaign in Bundaburg and surrounding coastal regions. 
A woman sitting on a turtle's back at Mon Repos in the 1930s. Photo from Wikipedia. 
The aim of the conservation programme run by Col Limpus isn't just about maximising turtle hatchling survival rates or trying to understand what turtles do in their spare time, or how best for us clumsy humans to handle turtle eggs. It was clear after my first night on the beach that Col, his wife, and his dedicated core of volunteers want spread awareness of the plight of the turtles and engage people in their conservation by making people want to do something. Whether this 'something' be changing their vote in the next election, donating time or money to Col's project (read: life passion) or simply turning off unnecessary lighting after dark, it didn't matter. They achieved this through both the turtle information centre near the beach, as well as through the guided turtle-watching tours run by the park rangers. 

I promise that if you can watch a turtle  dig her nest, lay her eggs and cover them back up again without feeling some kind of shiver up your spine at the raw beauty of it all, you are not human.  The patience of a female turtle as she carries out these tasks is remarkable and it took my breath away every single time I saw it happen. And once the hatchlings come out... well, that's just a totally different story. I think the camp staff were actually terrified one of us girls would smuggle a hatchling or two into our backpacks to take home. They are just so unbelievably gorgeous. And yes, I do want one. ALL of us wanted one. 

Afternoon beach patrol with Haz.

Afternoon beach patrol with Haz.
Releasing the freshwater turtle hatchlings in Bundaburg. 
Releasing the freshwater turtle hatchlings in Bundaburg.
Releasing the freshwater turtle hatchlings in Bundaburg.
With the coastal python that snuck into camp.
Possum outside the camp kitchen.
One of the girls comes up to lay her fifth clutch of eggs for the season. 

Invasion of privacy... 

Measuring the carapace while the loggerhead mum lays her eggs. 
One of my night patrol buddies measuring the carapace. 
Second night patrol buddy digging and measuring the depth of a turtle nest. If the turtles laid their eggs too far down the beach, we would dig them back up, count them, dig an artificial nest and bury the eggs again. 

Taking a few loggerhead turtle hatchlings up the lab for weighing and measuring.

My first flatback turtle -  easily the most beautiful species of marine turtle we saw at Mon Repos.

Anddd again... we christened this little guy "Knox". 

Training home at 4am: Bundy sunrise.

Training home at 4am: Bundy sunrise.

Thank you to Col, Lisa and Bill for looking after me during my stay up at Mon Repos. And to the wonderful fellow volunteers - thank you for your friendship and trust. You all made the experience something really special. 

- Matilda 

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