THE REAL DIRT

TURNING TURTLE: FROM SYDNEY TO THE DEEP BLUE SEA

November 7th, 2009 · 2 Comments · News

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Exclusive footage of green turtle being released off Lord Howe Island by marine parks ranger, Sallyann Gudge 

After months in the care of humans, three precious green sea turtles are back in the hands of chance.
The three young reptiles were born last summer somewhere on an unknown beach in Queensland and were rescued, off course and near death in the cold waters of Wollongong, Gosford and Dee Why between April and May.
Ironically, it is good news that more wayward turtles are ending up down south, say turtle experts, as it indicates that the increase in green turtle populations is continuing.
And at first glance they may be one species which could benefit – at least initially – from climate change.

Picture and story by JAMES WOODFORD

Picture shows a juvenile green turtle being released 1.5 miles offshore of Lord Howe Island

Since their rescue, vets at Taronga Zoo and Oceanworld in Sydney have rehabilitated the animals, feeding them, treating them with antibiotics and restoring their health in tanks of warm water.
But to release them back off the Sydney coast would be a death sentence so all three were flown to Lord Howe Island, taken by boat 1.5 nautical miles offshore and released by Lord Howe Island marine park ranger, Sallyann Gudge, and Lord Howe Island Board ranger, Christo Haselden.
Ms Gudge said: “As soon as I put it in the water I could feel that it just wanted to get out there.”
The reason the animals had to be flown to Lord Howe Island for their freedom was to give them the best chance of catching up with their cohort, who are already hundreds of kilometres out to sea in the open ocean.
A sea turtle’s struggle reads more like Mother Nature’s version of a gruelling reality television program than the simple hardships endured by other animals.
Before hatching there is the threat of the destruction of nests from other female turtles. If they survive that then the hatchlings must dig for life through up to a metre of sand.
Before reaching the surface a significant proportion are doomed. But then it really starts getting hard.
There is a deadly dash down the beach to the water where seagulls and other predators pick them off at will. Then comes the sharks and fish, which wait in the shallows taking their cut.
By the time the baby turtles reach the open ocean, at least one third are dead and only one in a thousand will return to the home beach, decades later, as an adult.
Australia’s leading sea turtle expert, Dr Col Limpus, says in spite of these hurdles it is likely more and more of the reptiles will end up in NSW waters.
‘It’s just a numbers game,’ Dr Limpus said. ‘The green turtle population has been increasing at 3 per cent per year for fifty years.’
In addition, last year was one of the biggest turtle breeding events recorded, contributing to a surge in the number of turtles ending up in NSW waters.
Dr Limpus said green turtle breeding was strongly correlated to El Nino events – 18 months afterwards there is a mass breeding of the turtles. This is thought to be because dry conditions mean less runoff, favouring the production of seagrass, one of the turtle’s preferred foods.
‘With all of these El Nino events we have had in the last decade we have had big numbers of hatchlings.’
And with more El Ninos predicted with climate change it is possible that green turtles may end up breeding more frequently.

First published Sydney Morning Herald 7/11/09

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Denis Wilson

    Hi James.
    Nice story about the Green Turtles rescue, and their recent breeding successes.
    Good to have you back to writing again.
    Cheers
    Denis

  • Dave Hayes

    Great story, as always. It’s wonderful to see your stories in the Herald again.

    A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks volunteering with Col Limpus and his son, Duncan, at Mon Repos turtle rookery near Bundaberg, where dozens of female loggerheads come to lay each night in the summer. Col is incredibly knowledgeable.

    Nice video too.

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