MOONLIGHT SHADOW: A turtle comes ashore on Wreck Island. All photos in this story by Michael Latter.
MOONLIGHT SHADOW: A turtle comes ashore on Wreck Island. All photos in this story by Michael Latter. Contributed

Turtle headcount: Volunteers shell out for critical trip

ON A National Parks map of the Capricorn-Bunker Islands, off the coast of Gladstone, there is one island with the highest level of restriction where only researchers can roam.

Wreck Island doesn't see nearly as many human feet as nearby Heron and Lady Musgrave Islands - but it does see an awful lot of flippers.

For two weeks over Christmas, volunteers with the Queensland Turtle Research Program motored out to Wreck Island along with Lady Musgrave, North West and Heron Islands, to conduct an important task.

The turtle census.

 

TAKING NOTE: Volunteer Karl French records turtle observations.
TAKING NOTE: Volunteer Karl French records turtle observations. Contributed

The monitors spend their days trying to get some rest out of the heat and their nights under the stars, mostly alone, tracking down the sometimes elusive animals.

"It can get really irritating when you're on four hours' sleep," Bundaberg volunteer Michael Latter said with a laugh.

"The loggerheads are very well behaved.

"The green turtles are really shitty.

"You try to tag them and they just go around and around in circles.

"There's a bush that lines the island called the octopus bush, a low, woody bush, and the green turtles have a habit of climbing underneath it - you have to climb under there after them."

He gets a thrill from being a part of conservation.

 

ARRIVAL: A loggerhead emerges on Wreck Island.
ARRIVAL: A loggerhead emerges on Wreck Island. Contributed

Volunteers spend time training in methods of tagging and tracking turtles before being escorted to and from the islands by boat with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

"They go out with a whole lot of turtle tags, data sheets and tape measures," Dr Col Limpus said.

As the head of the Queensland Turtle Research program, Dr Limpus bases himself at Mon Repos where population studies run for more than four months every year.

"Each night they're patrolling the beach, tagging turtles and measuring them, and in the morning, they're counting tracks."

 

OUT ON THE OPEN SEA: Turtle monitors travel to the Capricorn-Bunker Islands by boat.
OUT ON THE OPEN SEA: Turtle monitors travel to the Capricorn-Bunker Islands by boat. Contributed

Now the volunteers have begun tallying the numbers to compare the season with previous years.

Many of the turtles counted are recaptured from previous seasons.

It's a process that could take weeks, with many of the volunteers still keeping their nocturnal hours.

The Capricorn Islands hold one of two main populations of green turtles in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

The average annual nesting population is estimated at 8000 females.

 

ON THE RECORD: Turtle monitors note their observations on Wreck Island.
ON THE RECORD: Turtle monitors note their observations on Wreck Island. Contributed

"Green turtle nesting numbers were down last year and we're expecting more this year, because their numbers fluctuate due to climate.

"When you're 18 months out from a bad rain year, you get a drop in numbers; that's what we saw last year," Dr Limpus said.

The Capricorn-Bunker Islands are the only other nesting place for loggerheads aside from the Bundaberg coastline.

The population has declined since the 1970s from about 1000 breeding females, meaning the population is at serious risk.

"We're hoping our loggerheads will be up a bit on last year," Dr Limpus said.



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