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Judy Bowen watching the turtle boats approach

 Our final day of turtle tagging dawned and acting as if the weather read the collective mind of the camp, the wind settled down, to give the kids a chance to enjoy a full day on Pelican with the turtle team. We picked up participants early and sailed out to a site South of the river, fringed with mangroves and full of seagrass. Turtle and dugong heaven. 

Each turtle boat could only take a certain number of kids, so the teams could exchange with kids on Pelican. Every one got a turn. Even one of the doctors, Emma, had a go, jumping on a turtle. She wrote to me the other day that no one believed her when she said she both jumped on a turtle and caught a fish during the project.

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Turtle tagging teams are led by Ian Bell. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, Ian has been coming up just about every year for the project since 2005.

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He is an indefatigable worker, a wonderful communicator and great fun. He is a realist and very aware of the threats to the wellbeing and survival of the turtles he works so hard to protect. This year he expressed deep concern for the fate of the turtles further south. He has had the depressing task of reading the logs every morning of stranded dead or dying turtles, turning up in large numbers as a probable result of Cyclone Yasi. These turtles are already stressed by the fact that their environment is much more compromised than the GBR further North. In fact, a recent report on water quality for much of the Southern reef was moderate at best. Mediocre environmental conditions are then tested to the extreme when events like Cyclone Yasi occur. The resilience of plants and animals already compromised from of a century and a half of development along the coast, and those who depend on a the health of interweaving ecologies, suffer badly as a result.

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Ellen Ariel and Christina Howley were also on board. Ellen came up last year and we were very happy when she agreed to return this year. She is also on the forefront of work with the stressed turtles further South. She has helped convert part of the JCU as a hospital for sick turtles. She is involved with Gudjuda Indigenous rangers, working with them to help monitor and research the turtles in their sea country, near Bowen.

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Garry and Karl helping a young hawksbill to come on board

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Ellen Ariel on board 

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Ian approaching Pelican1 with some young turtle taggers

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Kids and turtles had to be transferred from the runabouts to Pelican’s dinghies to safely get on board. You can see how useful the beach on Pelican1 is for safe access in and out of the water.

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Austin and Shaunica watching the action 

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Bringing the larger green turtle on board took the contingent of male Pelican crew

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Green turtle on the beach 

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The Hawksbill turtle, waiting for her turn to be tagged, measured and some blood and skin samples taken.

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Underbelly of the Hawksbill turtle

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Ian gives a talk on the Hawksbill. First asking the kids if you could eat a Hawksbill turtle. I think there were more no’s than yes’s, which is good as they are highly toxic to humans. A number of people die each year around the Pacific as a consequence of eating this species of endangered turtle. They are critically endangered and have been killed in vast numbers, mainly by the Japanese for their desirable ‘tortoiseshell’.

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After measuring the shell and tagging one flipper, Ian explained that as they are so rare researchers tag both flippers. Shaunica, who had helped tag last year, put in the second tag. He told the kids that it does not really hurt the turtle much when you tag them, as it is just like getting your ears pierced. He then joked that it is now all the rage for turtles to have their lips and eyebrows done.

Ellen then took the blood and a sample of skin of the turtle. The blood can indicate what the turtle was eating recently and the skin sample indicates its diet from 6 months ago.

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Shaunica measuring the shell of the Green turtle

Attention was then turned to the larger Green turtle.

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Ian thought the bite to the left side of her body, very likely took out one of her ovaries. The kids all had turns at guessing what would have taken out such a chunk of the turtle-possibly a crocodile, bigger fish or shark?

She was not quite the right size for sexual maturity (the reason for measuring the shell is to help determine the age of the turtle)) but when she eventually lays eggs the number of eggs could be halved. Green turtles in Australia need to be between 30-40 years old to lay eggs.    

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Ellen taking blood and skin samples from the Green turtle 

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Photo: Michelle Quach 

Finally it was time to release the turtles, who moved as fast possible down the ramp (with help) and back into their ocean home.

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 Hope Vale kids on Pelican1 

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Maggie Bowen with seagrass! 

The day’s marine education was not over yet. Christina had been working with another group, after the tagging was done, to collect seagrass samples.   

Once they were collected the kids helped collate and organise the samples, learning about the different types of seagrass as they created pressings. Christina shared with the kids that their seagrass meadows were extensive and very healthy. They all were able to see and handle the seven different species that were collected in their sea country. Cape York has a total of 13 species of seagrass. In a time where seagrass beds and habitats for turtle and dugong are under so much pressure further south, it makes it imperative that the healthy areas are studies and monitored. After this project and a second one with the Wuthathi people further North, Pelican will be involved in some seagrass mapping of Princess Charlotte bay.

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Christina’s favourite seagrass- Halophila spinulosa

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Shaunica left with the turtle researchers to look for more turtles while the rest of the kids stayed on board for a gentle afternoon, waiting for the tides to rise again so that Pelican could take them back to the camp. 

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My daughter Aurora (above) spent time teaching some of the kids how to play Backgammon (which is a favourite downtime game on Pelican)

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A small group went ashore to the nearest island (Pethebridge) to do some beachcombing. And just about everybody ended up jumping into the cool sea from Pelican at the end of the day. 

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Of course there was some time for a galley raid- our cook Michelle is somewhere in the middle of the melee.

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Our passengers were finally ferried back to the camp as the sun made its quietly dramatic exit.

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