Leila glides through the clear water in her healing tank. Her flippers propel her toward a scrap of lettuce and as she surfaces to claim her meal, her shell glimmers beneath the sunshine. This green sea turtle is just one of hundreds of rescued turtles that have been nurtured back to health in the nine tanks at Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre (CTRC) on Fitzroy Island, just a short stroll through the bush from the island’s sole resort.
“CTRC has been around since 2000,” says marine biologist and master reef guide Azri Saparwan. “Since then, we have attended to injuries ranging from entanglement to ‘floater syndrome’, but most are due to anthropogenic impacts.”
In mid-2017, Leila was found washed ashore in Cape York. At just one week old, she had already swallowed enough microplastics to cause intestinal blockage and starvation and has since spent her life recovering in a tank rather than swimming in the ocean. Sadly, Leila’s story isn’t a stand-alone case. Although the Great Barrier Reef is home to six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles, nearly all of them are classified as endangered due to human impact.
If turtles are in trouble, so too is our beautiful underwater treasure; these ancient creatures have played a vital role in maintaining ocean ecosystems for more than 100 million years. They balance marine food webs, are natural nutrient-cyclers and preserve the health of coral reefs by grazing on seagrass blades, which encourages regrowth. Our oceans will suffer if major threats to sea turtles continue.
Threats to sea turtles
To an unsuspecting turtle, floating plastic bags and sunken fishing nets bear an uncanny resemblance to their staple diet of jellyfish and seaweed, making mealtimes hazardous affairs. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 52 per cent of all sea turtles have consumed plastic particles, and over 1000 turtles die each year from entanglement in plastic waste.
Ingesting plastic creates pockets of air in a turtle’s gut, making diving difficult and resulting in “floater syndrome”, where they drift to the ocean’s surface and are swept ashore. In Australia alone, WWF reports that the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean every 60 seconds, creating an enormous amount of plastic pollution.
The latest environmental documentary to hit Netflix, Seaspiracy, explores how commercial fishing devastates oceans and marine life, including turtles. It claims that the threat of plastic pollution is a drop in the ocean compared to the severe damage inflicted by fishing vessels. According to the documentary, in the United States alone an estimated 250,000 sea turtles are captured, injured or killed every year by fishing vessels. This is largely due to turtles (and other marine animals) becoming bycatch, where they’re unintentionally caught by commercial fishing nets targeting a different species. Once entangled, sea turtles often drown, sustain internal injuries from hooks or suffer from strangulation.
In a wave of good news, the endangered green sea turtle population is rapidly increasing as conservation efforts improve. But climate change is causing an alarmingly uneven gender ratio in the species. A hatchling’s sex is determined by the heat of the sand the egg incubates in, and as temperatures rise, so too do the number of females being born. A report published in the journal Current Biology found that on Raine Island (630km north of Cairns and the largest green sea turtle rookery in the Pacific Ocean), females now outnumber males 116 to 1. For the last 20 years, hatchlings on Raine Island have been almost exclusively female, turning the mating season into a courtship challenge.
Harm to habitats
Even if these females are successfully copulating, their nesting sites are degrading. Coastal development and humans using nesting beaches for leisure are destroying turtles’ chances of laying eggs in a safe environment.
Rising sea levels are another concern; the report in Current Biology found that on Raine Island, rising oceans have already flooded nesting spots, causing eggs to drown. What’s more, their marine habitat is struggling as mass coral bleaching events deplete food resources and human activity — from seafloor dredging to fishing tools trawling on seagrass — ruin the reef and seabed.
Thankfully, many organisations are working tirelessly to protect these gentle creatures, including CTRC. Its team of marine biologists and volunteers care for rescued turtles that suffer from a range of injuries, including limb damage and oil ingestion, until they are healthy enough to be returned to the ocean.
“CTRC is also doing its part by teaming up with Fitzroy Island Resort to provide education and awareness to guests on the threats to sea turtles,” says marine biologist Azri. “Sea turtles have a tough life as hatchlings, with only one in every 1000 making it to sexual maturity, so each turtle counts. Without our intervention, the population of sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef would decrease exponentially.”
After being in care for four years, Leila is set to be released later this year. Attached to her outer shell is a satellite tracker that will monitor her behaviour to ensure she is coping and feeding in the wild. When the tracker eventually breaks away as Leila sheds sections of her shell, the team will know she is thriving and will see her as another ray of hope for the survival of these majestic creatures. “The detachment of the tracker is the completion of the rehabilitation process,” explains Azri.
Whether you live along a coastline or in a rural region, there are many ways you can continue this fight to save our sea turtles.
How you can help save the sea turtles
Help from home
- Book a tour with turtle rehabilitation centres to learn about and support their conservation efforts.
- Keep an eye out for floating turtles as they may be suffering from “floater syndrome”. If spotted, call the helpline on 1300 130 372.
- Admire from afar. When snorkelling or diving, don’t swim too close and keep your hands and flippers away from the reef to avoid causing destruction.
- Wear reef-friendly sunscreen. Made with minerals rather than toxic chemicals, sunscreens labelled as reef-friendly won’t poison our national treasure.
Help from home
- Ditch single-use plastics by investing in reusable containers. Bring your own cutlery and say no to plastic bags.
- Stop eating or cut down your consumption of seafood to minimise supporting the commercial fishing industry.
- Beach or park clean-ups are an easy way to make a difference. Commit to picking up debris to prevent plastic from ending up in waterways.
- Aim to reduce your carbon footprint by driving less, minimising your meat intake and switching to renewable energy at home.
- Adopt a turtle or donate to the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre at cairnsturtlerehab.org.au
Kayla Wratten is a Brisbane-based journalist. When her head isn’t stuck in a good book, she’s writing articles on things she’s passionate about, from sustainability to interior design.