20 Aug 2018


I recently had the privilege of joining the Gudjuda Rangers and the Earth Hour competition winners on an unforgettable turtle tagging adventure in Bowen Bay, Qld. 

Being part of a science-based organisation like WWF, I have to be factual and clarify that the actual number of blue barnacles encountered was really only about twenty-one. And there were no thundering typhoons, only a rather brisk wind. I also promise to limit the number of turtle puns to only five.

WWF supporters Chris and Allan helped release a turtle after it had been tagged
WWF supporters Chris and Allan helped release a turtle after it had been tagged © WWF-Australia / Chris Smith

Meet Allan and Chris from WA, the lucky winners of the Earth Hour competition who got to go on an amazing trip from Brisbane to the Great Barrier Reef provided by our partner Intrepid Travel. And along the way, they joined WWF and the Gudjuda Rangers for turtle tagging. So what is turtle tagging? Well, we put a tag on turtles to monitor population growth, their migratory patterns, and to keep records of any diseases or outbreaks in the area. These tags are uploaded to national databases such as Australia’s biodiversity database, the Atlas of Living Australia. The data helps to drive ongoing research and conservation work.  

We also measure the size and weight, and check for medical conditions. For example, did you know that our green turtle population is suffering from a virus known as fibropapillomatosis (FPT)? This causes the turtles to develop tumours and lumps, which are benign at first, but grow so large they become debilitating. We’re trying to keep an eye on the spread of this virus among the population.

The team with the boat used to find and track turtles
The team with the boat used to find and track turtles © WWF-Australia / Chris Smith

But a more pressing problem is the burgeoning amount of marine plastics. Up to 130,000 tonnes of plastic will wind up in the ocean each year, and globally 95% of plastic packaging is used once and then discarded, often as litter. This is having a massive impact on our Aussie wildlife.

Up to 70% of all dead loggerhead turtles in Queensland were found to have ingested plastic. And the facts and figures are backed up with on-the-ground anecdotes: the rangers had sobering stories about many turtles they found which had to send to hospital with plastic in their systems. Distressed turtles found by the Gudjuda Rangers are sent to Reef HQ’s Turtle Hospital in Townsville where the sick and injured marine turtles can be cared for and rehabilitated. 

Back to today’s task. After welcoming us to Country with a smoking ceremony, the Gudjuda Rangers put on a big lunch spread for us, and even added a little bushtucker treat - of green ants! The bushtucker experience was an eye-opening addition to the spread.

The brisk wind that day made the usually-calm Bowen Bay muddy and choppy. We had to wait for a couple of hours before we could head out, but it was worth it. 

Uncle Eddie next to the boat used to find and tag turtles
Uncle Eddie next to the boat used to find and tag turtles © WWF-Australia / Chris Smith

The Gudjuda Rangers are one of only two Indigenous groups (the other being the Girringun) who are permitted by the Qld Government to handle wild sea turtles. Rangers Eddie Smallwood and Jim Gaston have been doing this for twenty-five years, often in collaboration with other scientific and research groups such as WWF-Australia and James Cook University. 

And in that period of time, these two rangers have developed a very particular set of skills, skills they’ve acquired over a very long career. Skills that make them protectors of the turtle population in Bowen. 

Imagine all the super-spies you see in the movies with mad speedboat skills. Uncle Eddie is better. The choppy sea meant that Uncle Eddie got to show off his superhero boat-manoeuvering skills, executing hairpin turns on the waves that had me clinging on to the rails for dear life.

And here’s Jim Gaston. Don’t let his gentle smile deceive you. The man can dive off a moving boat with unerring accuracy and retrieve a 100 kilo turtle with his bare hands. 

Jim Gaston preparing to dive in and find turtles to tag
Jim Gaston preparing to dive in and find turtles to tag © WWF-Australia / Chris Smith

Our turtle spotting started with a fast-moving shadow in the water, but at a shout from Uncle Eddie, we were off on a proper chase. And boy could the turtle move, with Uncle Eddie turning the boat left and right at a second’s notice to keep up. Just as it seemed all was lost, Jim dived off the boat without warning - SPLOOSH! - and expertly wrangled our guest aboard. 

We spent the next couple of minutes in awe at being so close to a magnificent creature, although I’m not sure the turtle was as pleased to meet us.

To our delight, we found two other turtle guests to join us, and we set about measuring the length of their shells and checking their tags. No sign of FPT in these three turtles - great. But what was really curious for me, was that this turtle can swim at sprinting speeds, and yet can lie still enough for more than twenty barnacles to attach to its shell. So either the turtle has reaaallly slow days, or barnacles creep up on you faster than we think they do. Barnacles get in the way of measuring the size of the shells (and they also add to the weight of the turtle). So we had to remove one or two of the barnacles with a pair of pliers.

And soon after that it was time to return our turtle friends to the water. The biggest turtle of them all, weighing in at 60-odd kilos, needed two of us just to lift him. And when he flexed his flippers, he trapped my hand between the flipper and shell (ouch!). It’s amazing to consider how strong and yet delicate these turtles are.

Measuring barnacles on a turtle
Measuring barnacles on a turtle © WWF-Australia / Chris Smith

And then - FREEDOM! We released him into the water and he made his dash. Chris tried to take some video of him swimming away, but all he got was a flash of brown shell looming up to the camera before he got knocked over by the escaping turtle!  

It was an awesome day. I felt shellacked from trying to keep (cara)pace with the speedy turtles. Honestly, I was flat on my back. But when I showed the video footage to my friends, they were green with envy. After all, not everyone gets to #Connect2Earth and spend time with such beautiful creatures (and the turtles weren’t bad too). 

That we need to do more to protect the beautiful sealife and coasts of Australia is indisputable. No one should be at loggerheads about that.