Turtle Hunt in Moreton Bay

A dark shadow flits across the sandy bottom of Moreton Bay.

In hot pursuit are two wet-suited divers, one gunning the outboard of an inflatable, the other gripping tenaciously to a bow rope.

The fleeing shadow of the 120kg loggerhead turtle, its flippers frantically propelling its streamlined body with remarkable speed, tries desperately to evade its pursuers.

The inflatable closes.

Legs flexed and eyes fixed on a spot a few metres ahead the tensed figure releases his grip and dives, like a human harpoon.

The choppy shallows erupt in a maelstrom of snapping beaks and flailing flippers as the creature, with its captor hanging on desperately, broaches the surface.

The animal, with its head and torso out of the water, is quickly hauled aboard and laid, inverted, alongside several more of its kind. Then the process is repeated until the boat is loaded with helpless turtles.

On the spacious deck of the 20metre research vessel Seaworld 1, an international team of research students are working at a feverish pace surrounded by dozens of creatures. Some are old and barnacle-encrusted whilst many are juveniles with shiny green carapaces. Small boats are constantly coming alongside to deliver their catch.

After a day and a night of processing the animals, the deck crew and scientists alike are all exhausted. But the backbreaking work continues apace. The turtles' comfort is paramount. The creatures are weighed, measured and tagged and a small operation is performed with a laparoscope inserted in the animal's abdomen. Occasionally radio homing devices are glued to their shells. They will fall off eventually.

Dr. Col Limpus, a gruff and weather-beaten scientist and world authority on marine turtles peers through the 'scope and rapidly barks out statistics of the animal's sex, age, breeding capacity and other vital statistics to another researcher who makes careful notes. The animal is then tagged and gently tipped over the side and back into its element, its dignity ruffled but none the worse for its experience.

But each year the tally of turtles declines.

Of the seven species of turtle that occur worldwide, six abound in Australian waters. Four of these breed in globally significant numbers around our shores: the green, flatback, hawksbill and loggerhead. Marine turtles nest along the Queensland and West Australian coastline. The loggerhead is listed as endangered and has been the subject of intensive study over the last 25 years by the Queensland Turtle Research Project (a Queensland Dept. of Environment and Heritage study). Alarmingly, there has been a 50-80% reduction in nesting females in the last fifteen years. They breed roughly every four years. The odds of a hatchling surviving to an adult breeding female are a thousand to one.

Turtles have many enemies. Trawling, gill nets, discarded fishing line (that tighten and sever flippers or decapitate), plastic bags that choke, or entanglement in crab pots that drown the air-breathing creature. Excessive egg removal and legal indigenous hunting of the creatures, feral pigs and domestic dogs, pollution and human encroachment on breeding areas are taking a dreadful toll. Even the additional high-rise buildings on a distant coastline will bamboozle the turtles' navigational system. They weren't there last time so where am I?

The endangered loggerhead is the subject of intensive study by Limpus. Alarmingly, there has been a 50-80% reduction in nesting females in the last fifteen years. A nesting female produces four clutches per year averaging 125 eggs per clutch. The chances of a hatchling surviving to an adult breeding female are a thousand to one.

All species of marine turtles are threatened with extinction. Countless thousands die a cruel death annually. Hunters are searching further afield as numbers decline. There is a high price upon the turtles' head.

Dr. Limpus can only guess at the length of time that especially loggerheads and greens can survive before extinction.

After the passage of 100,000,000 years that day may not be that far into the future.

What you can do to help conserve the dwindling population of marine turtles.
This applies world-wide. Turtles get around a bit.

When travelling in the Pacific islands and Australia don't buy turtle meat or turtle shell products. The products are prohibited imports to Australia and customs are VERY strict.

If you live near or are visiting a breeding ground, back off and give the animals space and privacy. If watching a turtle laying eggs stay away until she has begun to lay. Keep lights to a minimum and keep quiet whilst she makes her way up the beach and digs her pit in the sand. Then it's safe to take flash pictures.

When enjoying bays, beaches and boating, take your rubbish home.

If you find a dead turtle check it for a tag on its flippers. Remove it and send it to Dr. Limpus at the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage P.O Box 115, Brisbane Albert St. Qld 4002. In return you get an instructional kit and a dossier on the life of the turtle plus a cap for the kids. If it doesn't have a tag, take a picture of it and send details of where and when you found it. If you find an injured or sick one or a "floater' call The National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Turtles are totally protected.