Turning turtle on Fitzroy Island

Turning turtle on Fitzroy Island

It’s Monday morning and I’m delivering physiotherapy to a green sea turtle named Shelby.

Grasping Shelby’s leathery right rear flipper, I move it back and forth, and up and down, under the watchful eye of animal carer Ashlea Maguire.

Maguire has been volunteering at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on the Great Barrier Reef’s Fitzroy Island, located 45 minutes by high-speed ferry from Cairns, for a decade.

She explains that Shelby, aged 40-50 years, is being treated for “floaters syndrome”.

Sea turtle poking nose above water
Shelby. Credit: Denise Cullen.

This condition arises after these endangered animals ingest marine debris – in Shelby’s case, a discarded fishing line – which prevents them from digesting their food properly.

Shelby’s inability to duck beneath the water’s surface led to a subsequent series of unfortunate events: a suspected boat strike dislocated her hip joint, which paralysed her left rear flipper, which then had to be amputated.

While there is no physical damage to her right rear flipper, it remains frozen after her accident.

“It’s paralysed due to trauma – trauma alone,” says Maguire.

Up to ten minutes of physiotherapy per day have been prescribed to help Shelby mentally and physically reconnect with that flipper and regain the use of it.

“We really make her want to use (it) – we don’t want those muscles to seize up and stop getting used,” Maguire says.

Maguire is one of about 100 volunteers currently working at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.

Established in 2000, the centre moved to its current premises on Fitzroy Island in 2013 in the wake of Cyclone Yasi, which decimated the seagrass beds on which turtles depend and thus drastically increased the number of animals needing care.

As I continue to manipulate Shelby’s flipper, it feels satisfying to be contributing, albeit in a small way, to conservation efforts on the Great Barrier Reef – and that’s exactly why Fitzroy Island Resort introduced its new citizen science program late last year.

While resort guests have long been able to join short turtle talks and tours, the one-day Marine Conservation Program I’m participating in permits a deeper dive into local conservation efforts.

The program is a collaboration between Fitzroy Island Resort, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and not-for-profits, the Reef Restoration Foundation and Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.

The first half of the program is devoted to caring for sea turtles like Shelby and involves tasks such as cutting up their seafood, cleaning out their tanks, or scrubbing their shells.

To that end, Maguire hands me a scouring pad and sets me to work cleaning Shelby’s carapace.

Smiling woman in blue t-shirt
Ashlea Maguire. Credit: Denise Cullen.

By the time I’m finished, Shelby is floating in the (face-down) turtle equivalent of blissed-out savasana, the back of her prehistoric head tickled by the tap delivering fresh seawater to her tank.

Maguire anticipates that if Shelby keeps improving, she’ll soon be released back into the Coral Sea.

However, the prognosis may not be quite so rosy for another of the centre’s three recovering turtles.

Raine, who is swimming obsessive circles in a larger tank out the front of the facility, has “mental health issues” of undetermined origin.

Before going anywhere near this stressed-out 210-kilogram patient, I’m asked to change out of my black T-shirt into something lighter in colour, because Raine equates dark colours with predators, explains marine biologist and program leader Molly McCannon.

“If any guests have dark clothing, she will just try to throw herself out of the tank,” McCannon adds.

Previously, people walking past Raine, or leaning over the edge of her tank, have provoked similar reactions, but she remains calm as we observe her today, which bodes well for her recovery.

Fitzroy Island’s Marine Conservation Program is just one example of citizen science travel.

It’s aimed at helping tourists – a maligned group whose activities are often associated with negative impacts such as resource depletion, waste production and pollution – make a positive contribution to the destinations they visit.

Citizen science travel, in turn, is part of the broader citizen science movement, defined by the Australian Citizen Science Association as “public participation and collaboration in scientific research with the aim to increase scientific knowledge”.

It’s a burgeoning field: Last year tour company Intrepid launched its citizen science program on all its Antarctic voyages through partnerships with NASA, Oxford University, Happy Whale and other research organisations.

Citizen scientists can participate in five different projects, including contributing to climate research by observing and recording cloud cover timed to NASA satellite flyovers, and uploading photos of whales’ flukes to a database, which then uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to track individuals’ movements across the oceans.

Man in yellow marine conservation two people scuba gear
Marine Conservation Program Fitzroy Island. Credit: Marine Conservation Program Fitzroy Island.

Will Abbott, Intrepid’s Head of Operations in Antarctica, said in a statement that the company had an “ethical obligation to enrich people’s experience, and make that connection”.

“The trip isn’t just about tourism, it’s not about an extractive experience, it’s about giving something back to the continent, often in ways you never thought you could,” he adds.

Five years ago Lindblad Expeditions introduced citizen science trips focussing upon data collection on animals and their habitats in remote locations.

The organisation says travellers’ participation helps scientists access and cover the costs of reaching these destinations.

Aurora Expeditions and Coral Expeditions are two other travel companies offering citizen science experiences. In the Great Barrier Reef, The Great Reef Census and the KulBul Project are among a host of other hands-on options.

Even universities are getting in on the act.

For example, visitors to Kangaroo Island, South Australia, can join the Flinders University-led ‘Passport to Recovery’ which targets conservation and ecology projects over the next three years.

Back on Fitzroy Island, we put in our lunch orders at the resort’s Pool Bar.

When my pizza arrives, I note that the prawns are much smaller than those served to the turtles, suggesting that kitchen staff have their priorities straight.

After we finish eating, we don masks, snorkels and fins, and wade into the waters of Welcome Bay and Turtle Beach, located just near the jetty.

One of 600 continental islands on the Great Barrier Reef, Fitzroy Island is surrounded by a fringing reef which supports a diversity of fish species, all swimming against a colourful coral backdrop.

Our role here is to assist with the Eye on the Reef monitoring and assessment program by recording what we see underwater.

Initially, McCannon snorkels alongside us, pointing out different species we need to identify, including sea cucumbers, giant clams, coral trout, anemonefish, reef sharks and parrotfish.

Once we’re comfortable and confident in our identifications, it’s onto the Rapid Monitoring Survey.

This involves a 10-minute timed swim, during which we mark our sightings of different species using tally marks on an underwater slate. Four reef sharks. Two giant clams. Seven anemonefish …

McCannon will later report this data to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority which will, in turn, use it to prioritise reef management efforts.

Our final task for the day is to hunt for small drupella snails. These critters lurk at the base of fast-growing staghorn corals because “branching corals are their favourite corals to eat,” McCannon says.

Although not as devastating to coral reefs as the crown-of-thorns starfish, drupella snails still represent a considerable menace and so we’re instructed to remove any we see by hand.

Yet after 45 minutes of searching, not a single snail has been sighted or collected.

Seeing our crestfallen faces, McCannon says, “We didn’t see any – which is a good thing!”

DENISE CULLEN was a guest of Tourism Tropical North Queensland and Fitzroy Island Resort.

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