Turtle nesting surveys on Milman Island - led by the Queensland Department of Environment and Science - gave us just a small glimpse of what we might be in for as the climate changes and our weather becomes even more unpredictable.
Melissa Staines watering a research plot as part of her research into methods for cooling turtle nests
This year the annual survey ran for 12 weeks to accommodate research into nest cooling being conducted by Melissa Staines of the University of Queensland. Sea Turtle Foundation provided a small grant to Melissa to purchase sand temperature loggers as part of her project, funded by WWF Australia.
During the twelve weeks, we witnessed just what might become the new reality as global temperatures rise and we get an increased number of severe weather events. Several episodes of extreme wind and rain, including a contribution from Cyclone Trevor passing to the south, meant that there was massive beach erosion and loss of nesting habitat.
Rocks normally covered in sand were exposed after extreme weather events
Rocks that had not been seen for many years were suddenly exposed for all to see. This meant that hatchlings from nests that were laid before the sand loss, faced a very difficult - sometimes impossible - crawl to the sea. Other nests were exposed as sand was removed, killing the baby turtles inside before they could even emerge from their eggs.
Turtle nest exposed after extreme weather
The ghosts nets and other debris uncovered as the beach eroded, demonstrate that this is not the first time that so much sand has been lost from parts of the island. However, with climate change rolling across the planet, we have been told to expect more extreme weather events. The hawksbill population nesting on Milman Island is already endangered and may not be able to stand repeated nesting seasons where so many nests are lost to the weather.
Further information regarding Melissa's work and her results will be released by WWF Australia in the coming months
Sea Turtle Foundation are proud to announce a new partnership with Ocean Protect, a company dedicated to reducing ocean pollution through the design, installation and maintenance of stormwater treatment assets and infrastructure.
In early 2019, the company commissioned research into Australian attitudes to pollution and waterways and found that there are very high levels of concern within the community about the health and cleanliness of creeks, rivers and the ocean.
Whilst awareness about plastic pollution has increased dramatically in recent years, it is only part of the issue. Getting less attention are the toxins and pollutants including sediments, heavy metals, nitrogen, phosphorous and cigarette butts that flow to the ocean from stormwater runoff. All of these pollutants can pose threats to the health and survival of turtles and other marine species.
Ocean Protect is also investing in education around urban stormwater and its impacts on the environment. Company co-founder, Jeremy Brown said he was shocked to find almost half of all Australians think the leading source of pollution in the city and suburban waterways is illegal discharging and dumping when it’s actually stormwater runoff.
Sea Turtle Foundation were very grateful to receive a donation of $10,000 to support our work and look forward to an on-going relationship and the opportunity to work together to protect our seas.
How to get some quality turtle time on a tight budget in Far North Queensland
Alastair and Amanda Freeman
As you all know, for those of us who love sea turtles, nothing matches the experience of swimming with them in the wild, interacting with them on their terms in their environment. Ironically, living in far north Queensland, prime sea turtle habitat, opportunities to do this can be limited if you don’t own a boat or have a big budget to get yourself offshore. However, there is one place where you are almost guaranteed to see turtles if you are in the water and the means to get there is practically and financially reasonable. That is Green Island.
The lush sea grass beds around the island are a magnet for juvenile and sub-adult green turtles and if you are “locals” (which includes the Atherton Tablelands) the price to get there is relatively cheap. Even if you are not locals, a day-trip is still a very reasonable option on a limited budget.
A lifeguard patrolled beach means swimming is very safe and if you are confident and have the ability, a short 50 to 100m snorkel off the beach will have you away from the crowds and will almost guarantee you at least one and often more turtle experiences. Over twenty years of living in the far north, and with numerous visits to Green Island, we have never failed to see turtles while snorkeling there.
As well as turtles we have also seen white-tipped reef sharks and large stingrays on occasion. The coral is not as spectacular as can be experienced elsewhere on the reef, and there is no doubt that coral bleaching has had an impact over the last few years, but small areas of coral reef in reasonable condition can still be found for those willing to look. So, if you live in or are visiting the Cairns area and have a desire to swim with wild sea turtles but not sure where to go to do this consider a trip to Green Island.
In mid March, rangers from the Torres Strait Regional Authority worked alongside the Queensland Department of Environment and Science to put 3 satellite tags onto hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) nesting on Aukane Island, in the Central Islands Cluster of the Torres Strait. The project was done in partnership with the Masigalgal, Traditional Owners who are part of the Kulkalgal Nation.
Tracking these turtles, will provide valuable information about where the turtles nesting in this area spend their time between nesting seasons. Often we only encounter turtles when they are nesting, but to better protect them, it is important to understand where they go to feed during other parts of their life cycle.
Research conducted in the northern Great Barrier Reef over the past two decades indicates that hawksbill turtle populations are in serious decline and in early 2017, the species was declared ‘Endangered’ under the Queensland Nature Conservation Act.
One of the satellite trackers was provided by Sea Turtle Foundation thanks to a generous donation from The Northern Trust Asset Management. The turtle was named ‘Jessie Ella’* after a local girl from nearby Masig Island. The local community will be able to keep tabs on where the turtle travels here on the Sea Turtle Foundation website.
You can track the movements of this turtle on the map below. (Hover your mouse over any point to see the time and date that the turtle was in that location.)
A second satellite tracker provided through support from the Northern Trust Asset Management will be put onto an endangered olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) on western Cape York during the dry season nesting period (August).
* This name of this turtle was previously listed as ‘Urab’ but this was incorrect
It’s that time of year again. The Milman Island turtle nesting season is well underway and teams of researchers and volunteers have been on the island since the 4th of January and I will head off to join them this week.
The Queensland Government runs an annual census of nesting hawksbill and green turtles from the 15th of January to the 15th of February each year. However, this year the survey period has been extended over 11 weeks from January to March and incorporates research being undertaken by Honours student, Melissa Staines.
Recent research has shown that warming global temperatures are turning turtle populations in the northern Great Barrier Reef almost entirely female. Melissa is looking at ways to cool nests using natural shading materials and watering to try to improve the number of male turtle hatchlings and improve the overall health of hatchlings.
Sea Turtle Foundation provided a small grant to Melissa to buy digital temperature loggers for her project and look forward to seeing her results.
I will be on the island for two weeks as part of the Queensland Government’s on-going monitoring program and to give Melissa and hand with her research. By all accounts, the numbers of green turtles nesting on Milman, and the northern GBR more generally, are very low this season so it will be interesting to see how the hawksbills are faring.
Are you interested in becoming a volunteer responder to help with stranded turtles in North Queensland?
We need more people to assist with the rescue and transport of sick and injured turtles, collection of data (species, measurements, location, condition, etc) and disposal of dead turtles.
Sea Turtle Foundation, Queensland Parks And Wildlife Service and Reef HQ are organising a free one-day training workshop at Reef HQ in Townsville for people who would like to go on our register of potential responders.
Sea Turtle Foundation co-ordinate the response to reports of stranded turtles between Ingham and Bowen and need trained people throughout this area.
Note: You will need to complete online training before you can participate in this training, so register early.
Places are limited, so get in early
Download an information sheet regarding criteria and the process for registering here
On October 25th, Sea Turtle Foundation will be hosting a screening of the spectacular new 3D turtle movie, Turtle Odyssey, narrated by Russel Crowe. Turtle Odyssey explores the unique lifecycle of an Australian green sea turtle named Bunji and her incredible journey across the open ocean. The film follows Bunji the green sea turtle from a hatchling into adulthood as she swims thousands of miles, meets incredible creatures and has some really wild encounters.
This is definitely the best way to see our beautiful underwater world without getting wet.
The film had it’s official Australian preview at the Australian Marine Turtle Symposium in Bundaberg on September 7th but Cairns will host the first public screening of Turtle Odyssey produced by Definition Films.
As official Australian partners of the film makers, Sea Turtle Foundation are running the event as a fundraiser and to spread some more of that turtle love.
In early 2018 we were contacted by a fabulous 10 year old girl from New South Wales, named Jocelyn. She loves turtles and wanted to do something to help. Since then, she has become a true champion for turtles, promoting awareness about the importance of their protection at her school and supporting Sea Turtle Foundation.
In the past few weeks, Jocelyn has been busy baking and selling cookies and turtle cupcakes. So far she has managed to raise over $160 for Sea Turtle Foundation. An amazing effort and very inspiring to see her take on the turtle cause with such enthusiasm.
To mark World Sea Turtle Day on June 16th Sea Turtle Foundation held a community event in Cairns, bringing together the community, marine conservation organisations and government agencies for an action packed day of information, activities and music. The Cairns weather was very kind to us, turning on a beautiful tropical dry season day to help us celebrate.
It was great to see so many of the Cairns community come down to learn more about how they can get involved in protecting turtles and their marine environment.
Thanks to Joel from Videoshift for creating this video for us and thanks to Ronnah King from R.G King Photography for the lovely photos of the day.
Researchers have been monitoring nesting turtle populations on Milman Islet for over 25 years. It is a small sandy cay within the Denham groups of Islands in the northern Great Barrier Reef and despite being what could arguably be one of the most protected marine zones on the planet, the numbers of turtles nesting continues to go down.
In February this year, I was once again lucky enough to be able to spend a couple of weeks on Milman as part of the Queensland Government’s long-term monitoring program. This islet is the indicator site used to track trends in hawksbill turtle numbers for the western Pacific.
Over the month-long program, more than 200 hawksbill and 150 green turtles nests were laid. While this might sound like a lot for a beach that is less than 2km long, it is well short of the numbers being seen when the program began. There are serious concerns for the hawksbill turtle population, and data collected over many years contributed to the Government’s decision to change the official status of the species last year from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’ under the Queensland Nature Conservation Act.
So why are numbers going down?
Location of Milman Islet, northern Great Barrier Reef
Hawksbill turtle nesting on Milman Islet
We don’t really know the answer to this question, but there are a few clues and things we observed during our time on the island that certainly gave us some reasons to be concerned.
Where are the international travelers?
Historically, hawksbill turtles that nest on Milman were known to feed and mate in the waters of Papua New Guinea to the north, in the western Pacific islands to the east to, as well as in Australia. Last nesting season, WWF-Australia worked with the Apudthama Indigenous Rangers and Dr. Ian Bell from the Department of Environment and Science to put satellite trackers on 10 hawksbill turtles. Every single one of these turtles stayed within Australian waters, including two individual turtles that are still transmitting signals from within the Great Barrier Reef more than a year after they were tagged. Tracks of where these turtles have traveled can be seen on seaturtle.org
Hawksbill turtle hunting is not illegal in Papua New Guinea, and tortoiseshell products made from hawksbill shells can be bought in many locations throughout much of the country. It is unclear how many turtles are hunted there, or whether the majority of products come from turtles caught as by-catch during other fishing activities. Is it possible that the turtles that used to feed in PNG and then come to Australia to nest are all gone?
Plastic, oh so much plastic. While it is unclear how the presence of so much plastic in the environment is directly affecting turtle populations, it is quite staggering to behold the amount of plastic in the area. Milman is very remote, far from any major centres of human population, so clearly the rubbish is not being produce locally. However, every beach on Milman and surrounding islets were covered in hard plastics and rubber. There were thongs (that’s flip flops for our non-Australian friends), bottles, cigarette lighters, fishing buoys and toothbrushes as far as the eye could see. Frequently when we were waiting for a turtle to nest we would see and hear plastic waste being moved around and slapped by the nesting girls.
Small pieces of broken plastic could be seen floating in great slicks between the clashing currents and every high tide left behind a colourful smattering of plastic among the driftwood and sea shells. When turtle hatchlings first leave the nest, those that make it to the water will spend time drifting in these floating rafts of debris, eating algae. With so many small pieces of plastic floating among these algae these young creatures are also believed to be eating a lot of plastic.
Studies in recent years estimate that at least 50% of turtles ingest some amount of plastic and this can lead to blockage of the intestines or piercing of the intestinal wall. Turtles can also die from toxic chemicals that make up the plastics or that have accumulated during the plastics journey across the seas. Turtles can also get sick or die from malnutrition as they feel full after eating plastic but don’t get any nutrition from this literal junk food.
Plastic among the debris along the high-tide line
Rubber from thong production
Hawksbill turtle pushing aside rubbish to lay her nest
Dead coral covered in algae, Denham Island group, northern Great Barrier Reef
If there are any climate change denialists left in the world, they really should take a trip to the Denham groups of islands. During our time on the beautiful tropical islet, we took the opportunity to go snorkelling in the surrounding reefs. What we saw shocked us all. Consecutive years of coral bleaching due to high sea temperatures have led to the death of almost all of the coral around Milman Islet. As many would know, coral can often survive bleaching if favourable conditions return in time. The coral may regain its symbiotic algae and recover. However, this has not happened here. The coral on the reefs was dead and covered in brown algae. This means that there is not even a suitable base for new coral larvae from the few survivors to settle and regrow. It is unclear how long it would take for a reef to recover from this kind of blow, but it may not return to its old condition within our lifetimes.
All of this is likely to lead to some pretty big changes in important turtle habitat and feeding grounds. This is in addition to other serious climate change impacts affecting turtles, such as the effects on sex ratios of hatchlings and loss of nesting beaches due to increased severe weather events and sea level rises. However, a discussion of these impacts will have to wait for another day…
So, no, we cannot really identify one single reason why the western specific hawksbill turtles have been in a steady decline for the past quarter of a century. It is most likely that there many factors in play, and we need to change something if we want these gorgeous creatures to survive.