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A clownfish hides in the fronds of its host anemone © Jon Shaw

A close up of green turtle (Chelonia mydas) © Shutterstock / Rich Carey / WWF-Sweden

Australia’s Ocean Odyssey LIVE Q&A

16 Jun 2020

  • great barrier reef
  • climate change
  • coral sea
  • marine species
  • marine turtles
  • hawksbill turtles
  • marine pollution
  • plastic

Last week, WWF-Australia hosted an exclusive LIVE Q&A for ABC’s new series, Australia’s Ocean Odyssey. Diving into the first part of our journey down the East Australian Current, we were joined by our host, ABC’s Documentary Manager, Stephen Oliver, Australia’s Ocean Odyssey Director, Nick Robinson and WWF-Australia’s Marine Species Project Manager and turtle expert, Christine Hof.

In case you missed it, here are the answers to some of the questions you might have!

To watch our full LIVE Q&A head to WWF-Australia’s facebook page and don’t forget to tune in for Episode 2, on Tuesday 16 June at 8.30pm on ABC or catch up anytime on ABC iview.

Q: Nick, how did the ‘Australia's Ocean Odyssey’ Series come to life and why did you decide to make a show about the use of the East Australian Current?

NICK: The idea started about four or five years ago and I was wanting to make a show about how the ocean creates life on the planet, all the amazing connectivity between creatures and how much we rely on the ocean. We often hear the slogan that the ocean is important to the rest of life on Earth, but I thought few people actually understood the mechanics, the biology and the reasons behind those things. So the initial idea was to create a story, a series of films about that marine science. But to make that work, to spice it up a little, we decided to choose an ocean current, one which is obviously a huge part of the story and the arteries and veins of the planet.

Q: Christine, what is it like as a scientist, watching ABC’s Australia’s Ocean Odyssey and seeing these kinds of stories now being told on prime time television?

CHRIS: Our role at WWF is to really try and connect people and nature, that's one of our major charters and ambitions. For me, in my role as a marine species programme manager and I work very closely on marine turtles, it is about connecting the land and sea. So exactly what Nick said, is being able to showcase that to people, for people to understand the connectivity between land and sea, and particularly what the ocean provides us with, is really important.

And you know, that is the message that we absolutely love to see in prime time TV. It's the message that the work we do and that I do, in particular with marine turtles is that very thing. As we know, marine turtles are both a land and sea species. The females coming up to nest, laying their eggs in the sand, hatchlings coming back out getting lost in the oceans on the East Australian Current and also all the way over to South America for some of the species. And they travelled all the way back to Australia to live the rest of their lives, which is absolutely an incredible journey.

And it is this environment that we live in and what we are doing to this environment that is changing the ocean’s chemistry. It's changing the temperature, it's changing the speed of the East Australian Current, and it's changing the ocean currents. And that's all going to have an impact not only on the species that reside in a marine environment, but ourselves on land, and how we treat that environment.

Q: For those who might have missed the turtle feminisation segment on ABC’s new series Australia’s Ocean Odyssey. Can you tell us briefly what’s happening to the turtle populations?

CHRIS: Turtle feminisation is one of the projects we’re working on at WWF, around solutions to how we can cool the sand and the nests that turtle eggs are deposited into. Sea turtles lay their eggs around 60 cm-80 cm deep in the sand, and the gender of those eggs when they hatch, is determined by the temperature of the sand. So if you have warmer sands, and as sands and the beaches are warming with climate change now, we're actually getting more females producing more females and less males - a population may be viable to a certain point.

But for the northern Great Barrier Reef green turtle population, those turtles that are now being born are 99% female. So when you have 99% female and 1% male, you're looking at a potentially unbelievable population and a crash of that population.

So it's really important to be looking at the drivers of that sex determination for turtles, and unfortunately climate change is one of the major drivers.

And also to be looking at what are some of the solutions that we can put in place? Some of the things that we're doing with multiple partners, is looking at how we can cool the sand by watering it, putting in different shade structures and working out what is going to be the best approach possible for multiple beaches to be able to recover these species.

Q: What was the hardest animal to film on your journey?

NICK: I should say first, that no animal is hard to film. It's always a pleasure going out trying to do that, some of them are harder than others and more frustrating. I suppose in Episode 1, some of the more difficult ones might have been the cassowary , which occasionally turns on you and you have to run away. And then and then there's the phytoplankton, which are the microscopic creatures, the phytoplankton and the zooplankton in the ocean. And, I guess it's impossible to film that unless you happen to have an amazing scientist like Gustav with all the equipment and amazing microscopes and a giant ship that's going around collecting this stuff.

But yeah, all of them. I mean, all of these animal sequences are hard to get because you need everything to line up. You need weather conditions underwater. You need the animals to be there and then they're not pets. So they're not there often.

And so yeah, it's a time thing, but it's a pleasure doing it. We were a little bit spoiled, hanging out in some pretty amazing places, waiting for these things to happen.

Q: We're trying to deal with the symptoms of a warming land and sea. Would you say that, arguably, reducing our emissions would be one of the fundamental behaviours that people can be part of?

CHRIS: Absolutely. I mean, as humans we have created and made a lot of damage to our environment, particularly the marine environment. And so some of our approaches now are band aid approaches. But we really need to look at the core problems, and the core problems are greenhouse gas emissions, climate change being a real threat, not just now but in the future. You, reducing your emissions is a key thing that we can all do as people. To everybody here listening to this Q&A, there's simple things you can do just by: changing your energy provider, making sure you have a green energy provider powering their green plants, you can plant trees in your backyard, trees absorb carbon dioxide and we need to reduce our carbon dioxide levels.

WWF has a goal to plant 2 billion trees across Australia by 2030, and you know, you can adopt a tree. So there's other ways that you can get involved.

Q: Did you encounter much marine debris along the current?

NICK: Look, the East Australian Current isn’t the worst current I’ve seen in the world. But, even in some of the remotest parts of the Great Barrier Reef you arrive on islands and find birds nests made of toothbrushes, lighters, pen lids, and other plastic debris. In Episode 2 of Australia’s Ocean Odyssey, there's a pretty distressing scene of ocean plastics causing the seabirds to die because they're going out and finding them. We certainly see a lot of plastic debris close to big cities, in harbours and that kind of thing, But it’s far out to sea as well, the wildlife spot it and they eat it. Seabirds find every bit of plastic in the ocean and they accumulate it in ways that, even a small amount of plastic can do a lot of damage.

Q: After filming for 20 years in the oceans Nick, is the situation getting worse, not better? Although there might be a good thing to point out there are some good news stories. So it's not all doom and gloom, right?

NICK: Totally, I started as a marine biologist, so I guess I was up on the Reef about 20 years ago, and I don't remember seeing plastic then. I suspect the plastics started drifting into our world in large numbers, some time after that, and it's accumulated since and there's more and more.

But at the same time, 20 years ago, when I was in Sydney, I had a job as a commercial diver in the harbour and I can tell you now, it's a very different harbour today, 20 years ago the harbour was heavily polluted. It was brown, it was absolutely disgusting. There was rubbish everywhere, sewage in the water and the animals were dead.

So the harbour we have now, as a result of cleaning that place up is light years ahead of what it was. And certainly every part of the coast where we've tried to look after something, and protect it, it's much better and much improved now. So I tend to think that anytime we actually try and tackle these problems, we're very good at it, you know, we do it, we can actually recover them.

Q: Christine, what do you say about the marine debris? How much of a crisis is it?

CHRIS: On the plastic story, I think it is a real crisis and it's something that we absolutely need to address, right up there with climate change. You know, globally, there's roughly about 8 million metric tonnes of plastic entering our oceans and for Australians, we each use about 130 kilograms a year. And only 12% of that is recycled. That's a pretty scary figure when you look at what we are actually individually using, and then what else is landing in landfill. And when it lands in landfill, we all know that it ends up in pieces or in part in the ocean. And it is these plastics and micro plastics that are of real concern.

Turtles ingest it, whales, dolphins, fish, mud crabs, birds, you know, we're talking about a whole marine ecosystem that is consuming plastics, something that's man made, and doesn't necessarily need to be in our oceans.

Q: Is it true that turtles always think that plastic bags are jellyfish?

CHRIS: Yes, for some species. So, different species of turtles eat different food. When we talk about marine turtles, we're not only talking about one animal, we're talking about seven, there are seven species of marine turtles in the world.
Our loggerhead turtles and leatherback turtles eat jellyfish. So when they're in their oceanic phase, and they're out on the East Australian Current (and those two species spend a lot of their time out in the Pacific Ocean) they absolutely mistake plastic bags for jellyfish.

Q: What is WWF doing about it? And what can we do about it?

CHRIS: We certainly advocate at WWF to our governments, in particular, to ban single use plastics, but we also encourage people to do the same. Don't use single-use plastics, find an alternative. There are so many alternatives out there now. I saw actually just in the supermarket last week that they're bringing back brown paper bags. That's a blast from the past. But, you know, there are alternatives. And I think that we've got a lot to answer for, but now we've also got to be part of that solution. And there are things that we can do.

Q: What changes have you seen to turtle populations during your whole career? And overall, are these changes good or bad? I mean, you've talked about feminisation. That's clearly bad, but what are the changes? And what's the trajectory for these species?

CHRIS: Yeah, great question and there are positive and negative stories. You know, it's not all doom and gloom. The species that we have in Australia - we've got six out of seven species globally - and each of those species is on a different trajectory, and is facing different threats. So depends where that total population is as to what it's been impacted with.

You know, up in north Queensland and coming down the coast, two of our really major populations are hawksbill turtles and green turtle populations. And the northern green turtle population, as we spoke about, is facing a catastrophic issue with feminisation and the hawksbill population is taking a steep dive and we actually just published a paper earlier this year with Dr. Ian Bell, showing that the hawksbill population has declined by 57% over 28 years so, you know, we need to really be looking at their ecology and their biology, what's happening, where they are travelling to, and what are those threats that are impacting them.

Because we know, as Nick said, that with coordinated and really considered effort, we can turn populations around . We can change things around for the positive.

Travelling down the EAC with the loggerhead turtles, as I said before, they travel over to South America, and the threat that they're facing there is being caught in bycatch, in fisheries. So when you've got turtles being protected in the Great Barrier Reef that then are travelling over to another country, where they're being targeted and being caught in fisheries nets, we're seeing not as many populations coming back to Australia.

So you know, when we think about the ocean, when we talk about turtle populations, even though you might have a turtle nesting on your back door, you need to realise that that turtle might be travelling and feeding elsewhere and so it's owned by another person and community. So we all need to band together for turtles to drive their populations towards a positive trajectory.

Q: Christine, how do you become a marine biologist? And Nick, how do you become an underwater videographer or documentary maker?

CHRIS: One sentence, be passionate. That is one thing that's driven me to where I am today, my personal drive. What I do at WWF, I truly believe in its values, what we're trying to achieve and it aligns with my own values. It's personal drive and passion. I honestly don't see my work at WWF as a job. It's what I think we need to do individually and collectively to conserve our oceans. And so for me, it's trying to communicate the message that people are connected with nature, land is connected with the sea and if I can help drive that changing community and link science to policy, then that's my job done. Oh and I try and be a voice for turtles.

NICK: Yeah, I guess firstly we're not just purely underwater filmmakers. I make films as a whole but I also studied biology. I loved cameras. I probably wasn't a very good scientist, so I decided to chase the production thing down and hopefully one day make it into wildlife filmmaking, hich, I've been lucky enough to do. So I think it's a different path for everyone really. But it starts with passion. And it starts with a lot of time spent just doing that for fun, before anyone pays you to do it.

STEPHEN: Yeah, absolutely. I'll probably add that, you both have incredible passion and tenacity and dedication. It doesn’t just come straightforwardly. It's hard work, passion and an absolute commitment to being as good as, and working as hard as, you can.

Q: Which part of the narrative do you think people really need to share?

NICK: Look, I mean, if I hope that there's one message that goes with this show, it's that the planet is a living thing. And just like the organs of our body, it has to be looked after.
And I hope that if people can gain an understanding, and understand how interconnected we are with all of those systems, with all of these creatures, that it's not just the water in the ocean that keeps us alive, it's the creatures of the sea. If they take that message away, hopefully they'll be inclined to look after it.

CHRIS: Nick, I think you said it perfectly and I would mirror that, absolutely. I think what the series does , and hopefully the message people takeaway, is that they can do something as well. You know, we can do more, individually and collectively.
So, watch what seafood you eat, eat sustainably, watch what you put down your sink and on your lawns, it ends up in the ocean. Look at your energy provider, plant more trees and talk to local governments and councils if you've got a concern. You know, we're in this together, we've caused the damage, but we can also reverse that damage. So I think if that's a message that people take away, then, job well done.

Don’t forget to tune in for the next two episodes of Australia's Ocean Odyssey, next Tuesday nights, at 8.30 pm AEST on ABC TV + iview.

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