5 May 2023


‘The green sea turtle, he's like an indicator of the whole system, not only the Reef but even the sea itself. If you see the green sea turtle around in large numbers, you know everything is alright.’ – Chris ‘Bully’ Muriata, Senior Ranger, Girringun Aboriginal Corporation

The majestic green sea turtle is a protected species that is also sacred to Bully’s people and other Traditional Owners connected with the Great Barrier Reef. 

Today, the green sea turtle and other species central to Saltwater Peoples’ cultures are at risk of extinction due to increasing pressure on the Reef, including climate change, commercial fishing and water quality. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have cared for the Reef and the wildlife with Traditional Knowledge and cultural practices for over 60,000 years. There are around 70 Traditional Owner groups with authority for Sea Country management on the Great Barrier Reef. However, pressure on the Reef, including commercial gill net fishing, is endangering this precious place and their ability to care for it.

Reef species in First Nations cultures

These animals are deeply engrained in Saltwater Peoples’ cultures, where everything to do with Country is interrelated: the people, animals, land, waters, skies and everything within. Their storylines, lore and customs pass on ways to care for the intricate biodiversity of Country and be in harmony with it.

Artist Beau Pennefather Motlop honours five significant species in his artworks, incorporating styles from his Jirrbal (Aboriginal) and Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait Islander) cultures.

“My circular motif patterns are symbolising connection to the oceans and Reef. Line work patterns are representing tide in-tide out, sun up-sun down, seasonal weather changes and connection to the ocean. I left a portion of the animals empty and void of any colour to symbolise the damage done by nets to the Reef and its animals. The artwork is complete in both Aboriginal and Torres Strait (Zenadth Kes) styles.” – Beau Pennefather Motlop

1. Green Sea Turtle

Turtle; Bajigal (Jirrbal); War for one turtle, Waru for 2 turtles (Zenadth Kes).
Turtle; Bajigal (Jirrbal); War for one turtle, Waru for 2 turtles (Zenadth Kes). © WWF-Australia / Beau Pennefather Motlop (IG: @beau_motlop_art)

A lumbering giant of the seas, the green sea turtle travels huge distances to return to old nesting and foraging grounds on the Great Barrier Reef. Its brain, an inbuilt compass, senses the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate through the surrounding wonderland of animals, seagrasses and corals. By observing their behaviour, First Nations Peoples would know more about the seasons, the landscape and the health of the Reef.

In Bindal language, the name for saltwater turtles is Gungu.

“It's really significant to us because a lot of our Elders have passed their names down like different animals. My Aboriginal name is Gungu, which is the turtle, and I'm very proud of that because it was passed down by the Elders before they passed on.” – Uncle Eddie Smallwood, Bindal Elder and Gudjuda Senior Ranger.

2. Hammerhead shark

Hammerhead shark; Baidam (Jirrbal); Kuursi (Kalaw Lagaw Ya from Western Zenadth Kes).
Hammerhead shark; Baidam (Jirrbal); Kuursi (Kalaw Lagaw Ya from Western Zenadth Kes). © WWF-Australia / Beau Pennefather Motlop (IG: @beau_motlop_art)

Totem animals are a significant part of identity for First Nations Peoples and are a key feature in art and ceremonies. Hammerhead sharks have an important place in some First Nations cultures as creator beings, ancestors and totems. 

The Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait) eastern reefs form a northern extension of the Great Barrier Reef. Here, Baidam is a mighty creature, representing law and order. Its enhanced vision and sense of smell make it an excellent hunter; however, its unique head shape makes it particularly vulnerable to being caught in commercial gill nets. 

3. Dugong

Dugong; Balangal (Jirrbal); Dangal (Zenadth Kes).
Dugong; Balangal (Jirrbal); Dangal (Zenadth Kes). © WWF-Australia / Beau Pennefather Motlop (IG: @beau_motlop_art)

First Nations Peoples have sustainably managed dugongs for many thousands of years. Because of their importance in culture and spiritual connection, they use careful hunting practices according to strict laws and rules.

Knowledge of seagrass grazing, nesting and breeding locations are passed on only to certain people. This kept people and dugong thriving in harmony since they began existing together.

4. Stingray

Diamond Stingray; Yadar (Jirrbal); Thoepmul (Zenadth Kes).
Diamond Stingray; Yadar (Jirrbal); Thoepmul (Zenadth Kes). © WWF-Australia / Beau Pennefather Motlop (IG: @beau_motlop_art)

Gliding stingrays are gentle and social. The Gamatj clan of the Yolngu peoples liken their behaviour to humans. Like people, they take good care of their children and carry spears but only use them in self-defence.

5. Crocodile

Crocodile; Gujigay (Jirrbal); Koedal (Zenadth Kes).
Crocodile; Gujigay (Jirrbal); Koedal (Zenadth Kes). © WWF-Australia / Beau Pennefather Motlop (IG: @beau_motlop_art)

The estuarine (saltwater) crocodile is a great hunter. But it’s also a helpful scavenger, helping to clean up anything dead and remaining on the shore. Djiru women would collect the eggs of crocodiles – taking them from the crocodile nests to control their numbers. 

“On the full moon, the males sing in the mangrove, the male crocodile sings to the moon. And in the past, we did have people that would go and sing with them.” – Uncle Leonard Andy, Djiru Traditional Owner.

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is sacred Sea Country that has been a source of songs, storylines, lore, and customs and is home to totem animals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. 

For generations, Sea Country has been cared for by Traditional Custodians. WWF-Australia wants to help protect Sea Country from further degradation by removing commercial gill nets from the Reef to protect wildlife, First Nations culture and livelihoods. 

A vibrant, healthy Reef is one free of commercial gill net fishing.