JOY and heartbreak swim side by side at Reef HQ Aquarium's fledgling turtle hospital in Townsville.
Despite the best of intentions and staff skills, not all injured and sick turtles brought in will survive to be rehabilitated and released into the wild.
On a behind-the-scenes tour of the multi-million-dollar facility in North Queensland recently, staff were caring for five green sea turtles.
It was the morning after the night before for Reef HQ Aquarium director Fred Nucifora when he met our media group bright and early.
He had had only a few hours sleep after attending the North Queensland Tourism Awards at Townsville's Jupiters Casino, where the attraction won three from three award nominations (Major Tourist Attraction, Ecotourism and New Tourism Development for the turtle hospital).
But his unmistakable passion for his work, the Great Barrier Reef and the attraction's educational value shone through regardless.
Like a proud father, he introduced us to the sick turtles. We met “Bianca”, “Esmerelda”, “Porty” and “Timmy”, who were responding well to treatment.
Bianca, aged between 10 and 15, arrived at the hospital on July 11 from nearby Pallarenda Beach, where a collapsed lung was causing her buoyancy problems.
With antibiotics and a high-protein diet of squid and fish, she was almost back to normal and far from camera shy, lapping up all the human attention.
Fred said Reef HQ Aquarium was seeking permission to keep Bianca, who also suffered from the genetic condition leucism, which gave her a light-coloured shell, almost like an albino.
Rather than release her off Pallarenda Beach, where she would not only stand out like a beacon to predators but also be susceptible to sun legions, staff wanted to use Bianca for educational purposes.
Like great aunts, our group clucked around her and the other turtles like newborns.
Finally, we said goodbye and headed up a few steps to the last section of the hospital.
And then we saw her.
With a 114cm shell the size of a large oval coffee table, the 70-year-old turtle had jammed herself in beside the water inlet pipe, as if trying to hide from danger. When we realised something was drastically wrong, our collective hearts went out to this beautiful, helpless creature.
Like many of the turtles who come through the doors of the turtle hospital, she had floating syndrome.
And that's bad when you're a turtle. You want to dive down to the bottom of the sea floor to eat your food source, seagrass, but you can't stay down. You are forced to swim around the surface, where you are easy prey for sharks.
“We see a lot of it (floating syndrome), particularly after the winter period,” Fred said.
“Like humans, they get colds, pneumonia, and lung infections. We see lots of juveniles (with floating syndrome), not just old turtles.”
Fred said staff refrained from naming a “patient” until they were confident the creature could be rehabilitated. And this one would need long-term therapy and a little tender loving care before she reached that stage.
Since being opened by the then Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett in August last year, the turtle hospital has welcomed 30,000 visitors. The facility also acts as an invaluable teaching facility for James Cook University's new veterinary clinic, with students helping out with duties such as blood analysis.
Typically, four or five turtles are looked after at any one time but, as Fred said, “we sort of find it hard to say no” and up to 10 turtles could be accommodated.
Anyone finding sick or injured sea turtles should call the Marine Animal Stranding Hotline on 1300 130 372.
Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Services make an initial assessment and either has to euthanase the animal if deemed unlikely to survive, or bring it to the hospital for treatment and rehabilitation. The hospital also has its own four-wheel drive turtle ambulance for emergencies.
While Cairns had its own turtle rehabilitation centre, demand was growing in Townsville, Fred said, partly due to greater community awareness of the plight of all turtles.
He said the hospital planned to open a second wing soon.
The turtle hospital was the final stop on our special behind-the-scenes tour, which can be booked at the world's largest living coral reef aquarium.
This was my second tour of the attraction, having visited with my family nearly 15 years ago.
The fascinating underwater world – home to 200 of the 1500 fish species of the Great Barrier Reef – brought back happy memories of snorkelling all over the Pacific, but what impressed me most this time was how nature could be so meticulously presented.
Fred outlined the painstaking processes involved including coral collection, monitoring, propagating, cultivating and “planting”.
To create the facility 23 years ago, 700 tonnes of limestone rock and 20 tonnes of coral sand had to be trucked in, with water barged in from the reef. A total of 200,000 litres of water must be replenished each month from the tidal creek next to the complex, which is fed by Cleveland Bay. The attraction has no roof, allowing natural sunlight to stream into the coral, and a wave machine on the right-hand wall creates the wave action of a reef break.
While Reef HQ Aquarium had a permit to collect coral for display, Fred said the long-term goal was to become self-sufficient coral “gardeners”.
FOOTNOTE: Bianca has since been released into the 750,000-litre predator tank to stretch her flippers and grow.
Reef HQ is open from 9.30am to 5pm, seven days a week, every day of the year except Christmas Day.
The Townsville aquarium at 2-68 Flinders Street welcomes 200,000 visitors a year.
Phone 4750 0800.
Donations can be made to the turtle hospital: visit the website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to stay:
Ph 4759 4900
Ph 4753 2800
Ph 4753 2000