Mon Repos Turtle Sanctuary, Australia

As some of you my know, I am currently in Australia. It was a pretty last-minute trip to be honest, and I was only really sure I was coming until about a week before. I helped mentor a PhD student (previously Master’s student) that is studying turtles at KAUST. As part of her thesis she will need to draw blood from hatchlings, which I have never done so she needed to find someone to train her on this technique. Since turtle nesting and hatching season is in the summer in Saudi Arabia, we were trying to find her somewhere to go this spring, meaning it would likely be somewhere in the southern hemisphere where their summer is our winter. Fortunately for us, on February 7th Australia announced that it would be opening its borders on February 21st. We quickly organized plans and got permission to go for our training, visiting a researcher we had helped with his fieldwork in Saudi Arabia. He is working at Mon Repos, which is a pretty famous turtle nesting beach in Queensland. 

Kirsty and I departed Saudi on February 20th, touching down in Australia the very day that they allowed international travelers in. Our Emirates flight was full, mostly of ex-pats that were stuck outside of Australia. Customs and immigration took pretty long, maybe around 2 hours. We arrived at around 2 AM so we were pretty exhausted and stayed at the hotel at the airport before taking our domestic flight the next morning after around 4 hours of sleep.

We were heading to Bundaberg, where we would be staying for our week of training. The day we arrived we checked into our cute motel, and then headed to the supermarket for some snacks and bought a sim card (only like Australian $10 for 40 gb of internet, amazing deal). Then we headed to the beach for a refreshing dip, which felt amazing. At around 3 pm Taka picked us up and drove us to Mon Repos where he showed us around and we got a feel for what we’d be doing the next week. We were being trained but we were also helping out with ongoing research. Every day we would arrive at 3 to start with nest excavations while the sun was up. Excavations can be pretty disgusting, but are important to assess hatching success. Excavations occur 2 days after the hatchlings emerge from the nest, and we dig until we find the hatched eggs, which we take out of the nest to determine how any hatchlings developed and hatched, leaving behind an empty eggshells. Unfortunately, often instead of empty shells we find eggs with dead embryos inside. We open them up to determine which phase they died in. We split these into give categories, ranging from undeveloped to fully developed (When the hatchlings is larger than the yolk sack. Sometimes these eggs can be pretty disgusting and full of maggots, so after day one I brought gloves to make it a bit easier.

Embryo that died in the end of incubation.
Nest excavation

At 5:30 everyone had dinner together, Kirsty and I would bring something like quinoa salad, veggie burgers, or tofu poke bowls. It was nice getting to know some of the other volunteers, all of which were from different parts of Australia, some in marine science and some just there to learn. At 6:30, Colin Limpus, who is the head researcher at Mon Repos, would give a different lecture each night. He has so much knowledge on sea turtle research, and has been working to study and protect these turtles for 50 years. He grew up in the region and as a kid saw these nesting turtles, he was a high school teacher than eventually got into turtle research, and now he is one of the leading turtle scientists in Australia. It was very cool to learn from him on this trip.

Most of the volunteers and researcher were camping or living at the turtle sanctuary beach. Kirsty and I were staying at a nearby town called Bargara, which was about a 15 minute drive away. On our second night we discovered that the town has e-scooters that we could rent and take to Mon Repos, which was hilarious. They were really fun to ride and went over 20 km/hr. Most nights it was absolutely pouring out so we got soaking wet, but it was fine we were already soaked from doing turtle patrol on the beach all night. It was quite a sight having us scoot on home at 1 AM soaked to the core.

The reason we were in Australia was to learn how to draw blood from hatchlings. This is because in recent years there have been new techniques developed to determine the sex of hatchlings based off sex-specific proteins. Kirsty is going to try this method on turtles in the Red Sea. The current method of sex-determination in turtles requires sacrificing the hatchlings to observe their gonads. Determining sex of hatchlings is important because the sex is determined by the temperature during incubation, with hotter temperatures producing more females. There are some studies suggesting that feminizing is already occurring, and since Saudi Arabia has such high temperatures, it is important to assess the sex ratios being produced here. Colin taught us the technique, which is a bit tricky and requires using a tiny needle and poking the neck of the hatchling. We practiced on both loggerhead and green turtles, and throughout the week we improved.

Cheering on Kirsty

We were also lucky enough to be there to witness the emergence of a flatback nest. Flatback turtles are only found in Australia, and I had never seen them before so I felt so happy to even get to see them. But we also got to help studying them. There are long-term research projects occurring at Mon Repos, this includes a “notching” program. Notching is a method used to permanently mark turtles. The original question was to determine what age turtles hit maturity and return to lay eggs. They also can mark the carapace in a certain better to show which beach the hatchlings were marked at, so when the turtles come back to nest you can see if it’s the same beach, or a nearby one. Since hatchlings have such a high rate of mortality, you would have to notch around 1000 to get one that survives until adulthood, so it is a huge undertaking. When the flatbacks hatched, we collected them in buckets and returned to the lab. We measured the scute patterns, carapace length, and mass of 10 turtles, and then photographed the remaining turtles. Afterwards, we notched the carapaces to show the nesting beach and breeding season and released them to the sea.

Notching flatbacks
Here you can see the notches
The notching key we used

Another research project we got to help out on was a study to assess the effects of light pollution on the orientation of hatchlings. The researchers at Mon Repos noticed that in recent years, the sky has gotten brighter in different directions as cities are getting larger, creating a glow in the sky. Hatchlings find the sea by finding the brightest light, which without human influence would be the horizon, where the boon and stars reflect on the sea. Unfortunately, due to these city lights, hatchlings are becoming disoriented and going in the wrong direction. Sometimes this can be inland, where the hatchlings can get lost in the wooded areas. Sometimes it is in the wrong direction of the beach, but hatchlings have limited energy when they emerge based off their yolk reserves, so wasting energy to get to the sea can deplete their energy, and reduce their chances of survival. On a night with no moon, we helped Colin study these effects of city lights. We released 20 hatchlings on the beach, and after a set number of minutes we used our lights to determine the range of directions the turtles ran, and used a compass to record the direction. It was really interesting and I think it is a study that could be replicated in Saudi in the future.

I also was super impressed with the education center at Mon Repos. Apparently, it was a $22 million project, and the center is brand new and so beautiful. There are tons of hands on educational tools for kids (and adults). For example you can use VR to dive the Great Barrier Reef and see turtles and dolphins and fish. You can scan different “bubbles” to see different steps in the turtle nesting process. They have hatchlings and nesting turtles projected on the floor, moving in the same speed and in the same size as real ones. And there is an educational movie about the nesting beach. It is the coolest educational center I have ever seen. Also, each night there are tours showing the community and visitors nesting turtles and hatchlings. Apparently, the whole season gets filled up very fast because there is such a high demand. They maximize the number of people who can be in a single group and not disturb the animals. They have it very well thought out and it is super impressive, highly recommend visiting if you are ever in Queensland. 

During our days in Bargara we had until about 2 PM to explore and head the beach or do some short hikes. It was a really cute community and I enjoyed the food, especially the acai bowl shop next to the motel. I think we went there almost every day. The beaches were also stunning and we would walk along the coast in the morning and enjoy the sunshine if there was any.

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