Monday, January 24

We take turns looking inside a plastic bucket. Inside is a batch of newborn turtles’ | Great Barrier Reef Vacations


WWe are standing on sand dunes at the end of a hot December day. The light is fading fast and a thin crescent moon rises in the clear sky. It is still very hot; warm enough to dive into the ocean. But no one does, not because it’s sting season now, but because we’re here for something better.

Here on Magnetic Island in Queensland, everyone is a volunteer and everyone is local except me. There are kids in school uniforms, parents coming from work, a retiree, a CSIRO scientist, a marine biologist named Paul, and an off-duty park ranger. We take turns looking inside a blue plastic bucket. Now is my turn. Inside is a batch of newly hatched green sea turtles. Their easy exit from an underground nest was blocked by vegetation, so these volunteers have dug them free.

Paul pulls one out and squirms in his hands, so small and lively. The next moment, he is hurtling through the thick golden sand of the beach with his brothers and sisters, toward the gently lapping waves. People are releasing them one by one. Baby turtles move so fast that they could take off and fly like buzzing cicadas, instead of entering the sea.

Natasha Cica on Magnetic Island with volunteers helping sea turtles
‘Warmest of seas’: Natasha Cica with volunteers helping newborn turtles on Magnetic Island.

There are oohs and aahs and claps and lots of smiles as each hatchling dives in and out. We wait a while, watching the water’s edge carefully, hoping they are all safe on their way. Later, Paul tells me that each of these green turtles has only a one in a thousand chance of surviving to maturity. Now, we’re focused on just one of these – he washed again, tried to swim again and failed, and ran out of puff. He returns to the bucket, which I hold carefully in my lap as we make our way to the hospital established and maintained by a larger group of volunteers, the Magnetic Island Network for Turtles.

If this litter dwarf survives the night, he’ll get a shot of revival and hopefully he’ll have a chance. Nearby are recovering adult turtles. One is decades old and moves slowly; he walked in with an impossibly shattered shell, perhaps bitten by a shark. Another is younger and more playful: he was rescued with “floatation syndrome,” caused by a build-up of gas after a turtle ingested marine debris such as plastic, preventing food from being properly absorbed. This turtle splashes and thumps excitedly against the walls of its circular tank, poking its nose questioningly out of the water in my direction after sizing me up. Another survivor now appears to be practicing a healthier type of float. He completely ignores me, makes ballet arches with his fins and is much more zen.

Magnetic Island and surrounding waters
‘Tropical fish in bright schools and seductive couples’: the waters of Magnetic Island. Photography: Jesse and Belinda Lindemann / Queensland Tourism and Events

He had recently flown from Tasmania to Queensland, years after a memorable and moving encounter with a cheeky turtle while swimming in a coral canyon on the Great Barrier Reef. This time I headed to Magnetic Island, my visit started with a day trip back to the reef. For a few hours, we sped away from the island, on a ship that had suspended operations when the Queensland tourism industry was destroyed by Covid border restrictions. This was his test ride just before the 2021-22 summer season. We were a random mix of locals from the island and nearby Townsville, interstate visitors like myself taking advantage of the quiet before the storm of impending border openings, and international travelers stuck in Australia since we closed to the world in March 2020. landed – suddenly diving snorkeling with a twenty-something exile from Salzburg in a remarkable open aquarium.

It was wonderful, floating in these warmer seas with those tropical fish on sparkling shoals and alluring couples, and that amazing peach and blue colored coral below us. But part of my heart couldn’t help but sink where is that turtle?

The next day, I hiked for hours in the scorching heat with borrowed snorkeling gear and a stinger suit, through the island’s national park and its groups of sleeping koalas, to beaches where the road is now closed. The first stop was a bay surrounded by pine trees and famous for turtles. The spectacular beach was empty. I sat in the shade of the granite rocks and ate my packed lunch, then set off for a swim to the nearest reef. As I was moving towards a nearby party boat, now driving back to sea, someone yelled, “WE JUST SEEN A GIANT TURTLE!” I guessed so, but it swam away, and the engine noise meant I wouldn’t find it anytime soon. So I kept walking towards other beaches.

Beach scene on Magnetic Island
On Magnetic Island you can find groups of koalas sleeping. Photograph: Melissa Findley / Queensland Tourism and Events

I finally landed in Radical Bay, where I now know that in the 1980s there was a resort with a nightclub playing until dawn, which no longer exists. It is wild terrain destined for a luxury real estate development that now appears to have failed. Conservationists are still hoping to buy it back for those elusive koalas and hopefully visitors like me who want to drift gently away from our everyday lives to find something much better, like majestic sea turtles.

That day I could not meet any turtles face to face in the seas near Radical Bay. But I hope to come back soon and try my luck again.

Meanwhile, I am left with a new special memory: the sweet surprise of finding that writhing baby, rescued in a bucket, who could have lived until morning.


www.theguardian.com

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