October 13, 2017
Happy Friday the 13th!
While I know that Friday the 13ths usually forebode bad luck, I actually had a super lucky day because I got to meet a wild sea turtle out on Toolakea Beach!
This morning was the second field trip for my Biodiversity of Tropical Australia Course. After a short bus ride out towards Pallarenda, where I was hiking just yesterday morning, we wandered along the edge of a back yard lined with palm trees facing an incredible beach front view and down on to the beach at low tide. Along with our professor, there were also two PhD students with us today. While they went out to wade in waist deep water, the rest of us had a chance to explore the intertidal. My friends and I found some large bivalve shells, happy looking nudibranchs, and feisty crabs. After wandering around for about an hour or so, we noticed some splashing in the water down the shoreline. They had a turtle! Everyone gathered around on a sand bar and admired the turtle that one of the PhD students carefully carried over. The powerful flippers of a sea turtle can smash fingers and break bones, so they were sure to handle the turtle properly for both the turtle’s safety and their own.
We quickly learned that it was a juvenile green sea turtle, most likely a female, because females are much more abundant than males. As juveniles, there are no distinctive physical features that distinguish males from females. While the other turtle trackers kept searching, the PhD student answered all of the questions that we could think to ask. We learned that the species of turtle can be identified by the number of sections across the side of the shell. Additionally, the star burst color pattering on the shell is a trait of juveniles. As the turtle matures, the coloration will become more muddled and even. We also learned that the shell of a sea turtle has many nerves connected to it and damage to the shell can cause much bleeding. I associate the shell of a turtle to a finger nail of a human, through which pressure can still be sensed and injury can be painful.
Although green sea turtles are endangered world wide, they happen to be one of the most common turtles in this part of Australia. While this turtle was out of the water, the PhD student kept her eyes covered to help her stay calm. Sea turtles breath air, and therefore can be out of the water for hours, particularly when in a cool and shady place. However, we did pour sea water over her to keep her as comfortable as we could. She was very active and always new which direction the water was. They can also hold their breath for hours on end as they swim through the water. It was so incredible to be able to admire a sea turtle so closely. I loved the coloration of her shell and pattern on her flippers.
After the turtle trackers waded along the beach shore and we had exhausted all of the questions that we had, the data collection on this juvenile began. One of the PhD students is studying a disease in sea turtles, and therefore collected a blood sample. The blood was drawn from a main vein in the base of the turtle’s neck. Next, her weight and shell length were measured. Then, she was tagged with a unique ID number. So, if you ever have the good fortune of seeing a sea turtle with the tag #QA7380, know that I was there to witness her tagging!
Actually, in all seriousness, if you see sea turtles in the water, or especially on the beach, please stay away. A big threat to sea turtle populations world wide is nest disturbance caused by humans, either through nosing around or accidentally treading or driving on top of nesting sites. The people who were handling and collecting data on this sea turtle today are experts, trained to do their work efficiently while minimizing stress on the turtles. We just happened to be extremely lucky witnesses of their expertise. After the data collection was finished, the newest addition to the tagged turtle registry was thanked for her time spent educating us today before we returned her to the water and bid her fair well and happy swimming. It was surreal watching her swim away. I hope that she is one of the lucky ones, one that survives to live to be decades and decades old and is able to contribute many young into the population. However, she will only be able to do this if we help give her the best chance we can.
Plastic pollution is a terrible plague that has infected all of the oceans world wide. A huge number of marine species, including green sea turtles, are starving to death because they are accidentally consuming plastic waste. This indigestible waste takes up room in their stomachs, limiting the amount of critical nutrients that the animal can consume. Specifically for sea turtles, plastic bags floating in the water look identical to tasty jelly fish. With populations that are already endangered and in decline, we must individually take action and come together to save the sea turtles.
I implore you to make one change in your life: stop using plastic bags. Using them once is not enough. Using them twice is not much better. Using them never is best. It is easy to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. In fact, for all of you who are the “one trip” type when carrying bags from the car into the house, you can carry even more in a single trip when you use reusable bags that are stronger. So really, using reusable bags is a win-win for both you and marine life.
We have become a society of consumers and disposers, but what we truly need to be is a society of reducers and reusers. There is no time to wait when there is already so much plastic waste. Please, take this step with me and many others. Stop using plastic bags and start saving the sea turtles today.