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Saving turtles: Volunteering at the Rehabilitation Centre in Cairns

Did you know that the gender of the hatchlings is dependent on the temperature of the sand? Human interaction and climate change have terrible consequences for the future of the majestic sea-creature. Volunteering at Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre I witnessed firsthand all the treats turtles encounter.

The Great Barrier Reef is home to six of the seven ocean turtles. Their lives are now threatened by marine debris, fishing practices, trauma like collision with boats and diseases. The most common disease is fibropapilloma or floaters syndrome. Cauliflower-like tumors grow internally and externally making it difficult for the green creatures to dive and feed.

After a first health check in the Marlin Coast Veterinary Hospital the turtles are brought to the rehabilitation centre on Fitzoroy Island. Here the volunteers have the very important role of getting them ready for their release. Arriving at the centre, we are first introduced to the patients. At the moment there’re nine turtles. The most touching story I found was that of Lou. The Olive Ridley in his late twenties was found off shore caught in nets, he’d already lost one fin to the tight strangled robes. The hospital had to amputate another one to save him. But now he has healed and using his tail he can still perfectly navigate.

Our daily tasks consisted of cleaning the tanks and feeding the turtles. The turtles were wild but some like Angie begged for human interaction. I remember every time I was cleaning her tank with the siphon, she was following me around, biting the siphon and didn’t stop until I gave her some attention. Their carcass can be compared to our nails. A gentle scratch on their back is a real threat for them. She wiggled her carcass left and right creating huge waves in her tank. However turtles have a short-term memory and will forget this rare human interaction. So if you don’t want to lose a finger, don’t touch a wild animal!

Another task was feeding them. Most turtles eat grass but in the centre they have to be fattened up for release so we feed some squid and others shrimp. Rennie hated squid and would only eat shrimp even if the first was better for her. But I found a great way of tricking her. Before feeding her the squid I let them sit in shrimp juice!

I would have loved to witness the release of a patient at CTRC. Even though our contribution was small, it felt meaningful. “Sea turtles are the catalysts for the health of the Great Barrier Reef.” says Jennie Gilbert. If she’s right, and I believe so, us humans are the turtles worst enemy!

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