Associate Professor Ellen Ariel and her enthusiastic team of turtle trackers are thrilled every time they get a call from Uncle Jim and Uncle Eddie, and this time was no exception!
The invite this time was for a couple of different events that the Gudjuda Rangers had organised. The first two days Uncle Jim – Juru Elder and Senior Ranger with Gudjuda Rangers – had arranged to take out a group of high schoolers from the local community to introduce them to some of the work that they do on Country and to provide the kids with training and work experience. The third day was part of a reward trip for some outstanding WWF-Australia fundraisers that occurs every year since WWF-Australia has been proudly supporting the Gudjuda Land and Sea Rangers for almost 10 years. Extending the invite to us not only allowed us to participate in two amazing programmes, but also enabled us to collect some more vital data on the health of the local sea turtle populations.
By 5.45 am Thursday morning, the car was packed, the boat was loaded, and the team was ready to depart James Cook University. The team consisted of Head of JCU THR Ellen, PhD candidate Adam, MSc graduates Becky (me) and Edith, and BSc student Sarah – a mixture of professional turtle trackers and aspiring amateurs. At the boat ramp in Bowen, we met Uncle Jim alongside Girudala Community Co-Operative Society’s Sport and Rec officer, Gareth Prior, and eight high school students from the community group. Only one or two of the local kids had been out on a turtle rodeo before and it was great to see how excited and enthusiast they were to be working on Country and learning about the tagging research that has been ongoing in the area for two decades, since Jim and his wife Sheryl first started it.
The weather conditions were perfect all morning and we managed a great catch. It was mostly green turtles but Sarah even managed to catch a large hawksbill (85 cm curved carapace length [shell length])! Although there were a few hesitations at first, everyone got stuck in and had a great time. It was great to talk to the students about our collaborations and the research that we do at JCU. There was even discussion around organising a work experience programme for those interested in marine science, research or working with animals. It is great to inspire the next generation and perhaps some of these high schoolers will become rangers or scientists themselves. Unfortunately, ‘Blowin’ Bowen’ was living up to its name, which certainly made camping in a high-sided tent rather interesting!
Amazingly, our tent didn’t blow away in the night (though it did bend in half multiple times), but the wind on Friday was too strong to take the boats out so we were forced to have a dry day. After watching the Girudala students receive their training certificates – and of course taking a group photo – the THR team headed out for a tour of Bowen’s beaches. And what an outstanding view we had from the top of Flagstaff Hill! We also had a quick catch up with Jim and Sheryl, which included meeting their chickens, and then headed back to our campsite for the evening to batten down the hatches!
As the sun rose on Saturday morning, there was a bit of chatter amongst the other families of campers as to whether they’d be able to get their boats out for the Fishing Classics weekend. But we had come too far to only rodeo for one day and we also were meeting Jim, Eddie and Kalvin from the Gudjuda rangers to help take a group of fundraisers from WWF-Australia out to catch turtles, so we were definitely going. Not to mention, I was still yet to actually catch a turtle myself, so I was doubly determined! The WWF-Australia group came from Sydney, Perth, Gold Coast, and even from Townsville but they had all come together to enjoy this wonderful experience.
In spite of the wind and the grey skies, our three boats of turtle trackers managed to find calm waters and catch three turtles, so the WWF-Australia team did not have a wasted trip, and I even succeeded in catching one of those turtles myself! Finally, my first turtle! It may not have been the perfect conditions for a day of turtle tagging but we added three more turtles to our database and WWF-Australia team loved being so close to the turtles, learning from Uncle Jim and Uncle Eddie about their traditions and culture of working on Sea Country with turtles, and assisting with the research. After a delicious lunch prepared by Michelle from Girudala, posing for the classic group picture, and some hot showers to warm us up, we reconvened at the local pub to reflect on the trip’s successes and enjoy our Saturday night.
Turtle tracking really is a team activity; you need people to spot the turtles, someone to drive the boats, someone to jump and catch the turtles, someone to assist the catcher to keep hold of the turtle, everyone to get the turtle on the boat, and then someone to record the data collected. By the end of the trip, we had managed to catch nine turtles and all THR team members were officially successful turtle catchers, rodeo style!
Ellen and the team have been working happily alongside the Gudjuda Rangers for many years and we very much look forward to our next joint adventure, whatever it may be.
Written by Rebecca Diggins