Fate of the One-Thousandth Turtle

What’s all the fuss about saving sea turtles? Around for over one hundred million years already but on a sure path to rapid extinction, many marine scientists tell us that turtle sea grass feeding is central to that watery plants’ productivity and nutrient content, which in turn enhances the entire food chain all the way up to us humans. Other substantial undersea and landlubber benefits attributed to these shelled submersibles include coral health and vitality, and sand dune stabilization around nesting habitats. Coral condition directly dictates the wellbeing of reef ecosystems. So yes, these diving dinosaurs are pretty darn important it would seem in this world, as we now know it. A healthy turtle population means vigorous plant and coral life, reef welfare, and all of the links in the food chain up to your local fish and chip shop. Furthermore, it goes without saying that they are very cute and delightful to encounter in the wild whether one is boating, diving, snorkeling, or just meandering along the beach.

Now that we appreciate and understand their natural importance, what’s going on with these armored ambassadors? For the past few centuries the population has decreased dramatically due to loss of land and sea habitat, commercial fishing operations, poaching, and changes in our climate. All seven seagoing species of our finned-flippered friends are currently either endangered or threatened with extinction at this challenging time for mankind. And it’s hard enough already for these majestic encased egg-layers, which can live for over a century—traditionally, only one in a thousand survives to breeding age, although the demise of the other nine hundred and some play lesser but generally laudable and edible roles in the environment.

After successfully completing the one-in-a-thousand gauntlet around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, when one of these threatened reptiles gags on ocean plastic, is damaged by fishing operations, or can no longer find natural food sources it becomes a “floater,” helplessly bobbing about like a big beleaguered buoy. In some close encounters of the keratin kind, these briny beaked beasts may be lucky to be rescued and brought to the rehabilitation center at Fitzroy Island near Cairns, Australia. Here, Gillian Houston and her enthusiastic collaborators will care it for until it is healthy enough to be released back into the ocean. Gillian et al. will clean, mend, feed, and provide endless love and encouragement to each and every carapacious caller, regardless of type, sex, age, or any other factor. Whether it’s a famished floating Flatback, a gagged Green, a harangued Hawksbill, a line-caught Leatherback, a listless Loggerhead, or a ravished Ripley, the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Center has helped over 170 of these magnificent creatures in recent years, and boasts an 85% success report card to boot.

These may be small numbers in the grand scheme of things, but of vital importance nonetheless, as every single turtle counts. While society and our distracted governments need urgently to address the gravity of the root problems, this little motley crew of motivated volunteers will continue to help clean up the mess we’ve created.

The photos show a variety of the prehistoric patients currently at the center. Angie, an Olive Ridley, is over 100 years old and was caught up in a discarded illegal fishing net, known as a “ghost net.” Rinnie, a 15 year old Green, was found in an oil slick, while Lou, a 40 year old Olive Ridley was also a victim of a ghost net. The largest is Margaret, weighing in at about 180 kg (400 lbs), while one of the smallest is Nellie, who was found starving and had ingested marine debris.