Turtle rodeo helps save the 'gungu'
The boat swerved suddenly and I nearly ended up in the drink for the second time that morning. Relieved, I focused on the dark shape in the water. I had one more chance to prove myself in the 'turtle rodeo'.
Ahead of us we could see the Girringun ranger boat circling. Chris Muriata, one of the indigenous rangers, stood on the bow pointing at the water. Suddenly he leapt.
There was a short struggle and he re-emerged with a flapping turtle, or 'gungu', in his hands and a big smile on his face.
These guys made it look so easy. I readied myself. Now! Yelled the skipper, and I pounced.
I felt the turtle's smooth shell on my hands and the leathery touch of its flippers, and suddenly I had it. A miracle. I'd caught my first turtle. But holding on to it was not easy as it karate chopped me with its flippers. Easy to see why they call them ninja turtles.
It sounds like some kind of strange new sport but this was all part of a groundbreaking investigation into a nasty virus affecting juvenile green turtles in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef.
The investigation is a unique collaboration between WWF, James Cook University, local community groups and the area's traditional owners, represented by the Gudjuda and Girringun people.
The virus, known as fibropapilloma, is causing lesions and tumours on young turtles. It's confined to a very specific part of the bay, raising concerns that pollutants from pesticides or other industrial sources may be the cause.
The Edgecombe Bay outbreak was first noticed by the traditional owners of the area (the Gudjuda people) about 10 years ago. Before that there had been no memory of the virus in this area by Aboriginal people.
Once caught and tagged, we brought the turtles to a mobile laboratory set up on the beach, where there was an army of volunteers waiting to weigh and examine the animals for lesions.
Researchers and students from JCU's veterinary and medical departments took blood and shell samples to examine later for heavy metal exposure or other pollutants. At the same time sediment samples from the bay are taken to see if the bay has higher than normal levels of pollutants.
An identical process is also done outside of the bay, with the same number of turtles captured and assessed for the virus. In this way the researchers are able to confirm whether Edgecombe Bay itself is a risk factor.
The emergence of the virus in this area is a significant concern for WWF as it is an important habitat for marine turtles that are already threatened by fishing nets, marine debris, poaching and climate change.
The project also reflects WWF’s recognition of the commitment and history of the Gudjuda and Girringun people in delivering conservation and environmental outcomes across their traditional lands and seas.
We hope the research will identify what is going on in this area to make these turtles so sick, which will help us in our aim to make the Great Barrier Reef one of the safest havens for marine life on the planet.
For more information about WWF’s marine turtle work or information about the fibropapilloma virus, please contact:
Mobile: 0424 649 689