WA’s Sea Turtle Saviours
By Kaitlin ShawcrossOne of the world’s greatest and most vulnerable marine treasures can be found in abundance along the West Australian coastline.
According to Australian Geographic, four of the seven species of sea turtles found worldwide breed off the WA coastline. Of the four species, flatback, green, and hawksbill turtles are classed as ‘vulnerable’ and the loggerhead turtle is listed as ‘endangered’.
Many islands and sections of the mainland coastline in WA’s north support large turtle nesting sites. Among them is Barrow Island, home to a major flatback rookery that has been monitored by Pendoley Environmental (PENV) for the last eight years.
PENV runs turtle tagging studies, with the help of volunteers, on behalf of Chevron Australia. Chevron has also committed AU$62.5 million to fund the 'North West Shelf Flatback Turtle Conservation Program' over the life of the Gorgon project, managed by the Department of Environment and Conservation. PENV Environmental scientist Rebecca McCracken believes any information that is gained from the study is highly valuable.
“… our data are really contributing to knowledge of the flatback turtle, which at the moment is sadly lacking, there’s not a lot of published information out there, especially not on the West Coast” she says.
To help collect this data, PENV takes on 72 volunteers each year to patrol flatback nesting beaches, on Barrow Island and at Mundabullangana, on behalf of Chevron who cover all expenses for volunteers, including flights from Perth.
“…it gives [the volunteers] an experience, they get to tag turtles, get up close and learn about scientific programs. It’s also beneficial to Pendoley Environmental because […] without the volunteers we couldn’t run this survey to the same extent due to the high expense of wages.”
For those who are unable to volunteer their time to travel and work hands on, Rebecca suggests that just by taking care of our rubbish in a responsible way we are doing our bit to help these beautiful creatures.
“…don’t dump any rubbish in the ocean, don’t leave anything on the beach because that affects all marine life, not only turtles. Turtles can swallow plastic bags and other debris, which can lead to their death. Just in general, marine pollution would be bad news for them as it is for everything else in the ocean” she says.
PENV has a passion to see populations of sea turtles flourish and do well alongside the construction of gas projects in the region. So far they say everything has been stable and they are seeing the results they want.
If you travel further north along our coastline you will find the town of Broome, home to 'Chelonia' - the only turtle rehabilitation centre north of Geraldton. The name, Chelonia, is Latin for a large group of turtles.
The centre was established in 2001 by wildlife rehabilitator, Lesley Baird, who cared for around 700 turtles, birds, and other wildlife each year, up until her passing last year. The centre has now been taken over by animal lover and close friend of Lesley, Kylie Sherwood.
“I was very close to Lesley and she asked me to keep [Chelonia] going and I love animals and that’s why I started working with Lesley in the first place” she says.
For Kylie the most important reason for continuing with the rehabilitation centre is to give such a vulnerable species a much needed helping hand.
“Basically we’re it and if we weren’t running then the turtles wouldn’t have a chance to survive.”
Most of Kylie’s turtles require rehabilitation for a condition known as floating syndrome, which fills the animal up with gas. She describes it like “helium in a balloon, they can’t dive they just float on the surface”
The condition could be a result of water pollution or poor sea grass quality or the turtle has swallowed a foreign object. Because there is no direct way to fix the problem, Kylie must keep the turtle in rehabilitation for as long as it takes for the gas to disappear.
“We’ve got a good success rate, it’s just a really slow process. The average stay is 3-4 months” she says.
“It’s [all about] putting them on a proper diet, giving them a rest and then one day […] the turtle will be on the bottom of the tank because all the gas has come out.”
Catering for several marine houseguests doesn’t come cheap and covering Chelonia’s day-to-day expenses is largely in the hands of the public.
“We solely rely on public donations, which we don’t get a lot of. We have received funding for equipment through BHP in Port Hedland, and Dampier Salt supply the salt, but as far as the food goes it’s public donations or I pretty much work for it.”
However, all the effort is made worthwhile when Kylie is able to see one of her patients swimming back home.
“It’s so exciting when you get to release a sea turtle and especially when it takes so long for them to recover and it’s adding another turtle to the ocean” she says.
Looking to the future, Pendoley Environmental is keen to see knowledge about marine turtles spread so that others may share in their excitement for these animals.
“The more people that know about sea turtles, that love sea turtles, that are willing to contribute their time or their money or just passion to do anything with marine conservation, is great, whether it’s in WA or whether it’s elsewhere in the world. We’re encouraging people to get out there and do whatever they can for sea turtles,” Rebecca says.
Although Kylie feels an attachment to each of her turtles she doesn’t ever regret saying goodbye.
“As much as you love them it’s good to see them go because you know you’re going to get another one with a cheeky personality”
She laughs as she repeats, “They can be cheeky.”
Here are FIVE simple things that we can all do to help look after our marine turtles.
1. Turn out lights visible from the beach.
Rebecca McCracken explains that sea turtles are “susceptible to light pollution” which causes them to become “disorientated” so that they no longer know which way to travel to the ocean.
2. Clean up any rubbish you see on the beach.
Turtles may mistake rubbish for food, or become entangled in fishing line or plastics.
3. Be aware of turtle nesting areas and avoid nesting and hatching turtles.
If turtles nest on your beach, get to know their nesting areas so you can be careful not to trample on them. Also avoid touching or shining torches on nesting turtles as this disturbs them.
4. Reduce your chemical waste
Chemicals used in the home or on your lawn can wash into our ocean and poison marine life. It is important that toxic chemicals are disposed of correctly.
Volunteer your time with an organisation like Pendoley Environmental or arrange a beach clean-up day with some friends. There are so many ways to get involved; you just have to find one that suits you.