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50 Years of Turtle Research

This summer marks half a century of turtle research at Bundaberg's Mon Repos beach. We talk to the man who started it all, way back when, and who is still talking to the turtles, 50 years on.

FOUR hundred kilometres by road and a lifetime away from the sand dunes of Mon Repos beach, biologist Col Limpus sits in the shadow of Brisbane's sleek and shiny Ecosciences Precinct, and confesses he didn't originally have much interest in turtles. It was sea snakes he wanted to study.

Fifty years later, this Chief Scientist at the Aquatic Species Program at Queensland's Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, is considered one of Australia's leading minds in sea turtle research. And it's been quite the journey for both Limpus, 76, and the turtles.

 

"Why Mon Repos? I grew up in the Bundaberg area and like of lot of young people, we were going down to the beach to see the nesting turtles. Back in the 1950s, we used to go down on New Years Eve to see the New Year in at Mon Repos," he says.

"There was nothing there, just cane paddocks. There were no roads and no caravan park. There was this culture of viewing the turtles.

"Turtle eggs were being gathered at Mon Repos back in World War Two to supplement a shortage of chicken eggs that were being sent overseas to the troops. Bakeries were making cakes with turtle eggs."

In the 1960s, Limpus was a high school teacher in North Queensland and decided to use turtles as an example of biology in his classroom. During the summer of 63, 64 and 64, he would visit Mon Repos and photograph and observe turtles.

"That gave me an awareness of the turtles that was a bit more than the average person," he says.

"In 1968 I was at Heron Island and I'm sitting watching a nesting turtle in the dark and this fellow comes out and turns his torch on and reads and tag, and measures it and makes some notes.

"I asked him whether he had ever seen flat back turtles and he said 'what do you know about them?' There was a debate still going on in the scientific community about whether flat backs were a real species or not. I took him down to Mon Repos Beach and we saw a flat back nesting."
Limpus says turtles were under threat from foxes who were digging up the nests and from the council, which wanted to bitumen the road so people could 'sit in their cars with their headlights on and watch the nesting turtles'.

 

In 1968, a Save Mon Repos Committee was formed by combined services clubs. By then, Limpus was a lecturer at Kelvin Grove Teacher College and launched a research program into turtles, despite his initial interest being in sea snakes.

"I really wasn't a big fan of turtles. They were something you go and watch to see the New Year in. I had no vision of a career with them. I wanted to work with sea snakes," he says.

"I started a research project into the flat backs and it was to be a four-year project. Because the loggerheads were on the beach we were tagging them as well.

"We were running field trips and I invited students to learn about the turtles and so we had a volunteer project start."
Limpus says little was known about turtles back then or how far their populations spread.

"If you walked on any beach in the region in summer there were loggerheads nesting. We assumed they were on every beach in Queensland but we didn't know how many," he says.

"One day I hired a plane and flew about 200km north from Fraser Coast along the Queensland coastline. We only found two hotspots of loggerhead turtles.

That started us realising this wasn't typical.

"Very quickly we realised this was an area that was special for loggerheads."
In the early 70s turtles and other marine life still came under the Department of Fisheries which believed turtle research was unnecessary. Limpus moved over to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) and became a crocodile biologist, devoting 30 per cent of his time to continuing his turtle studies. Four years later, his research was shifted to spending 70 per cent of his time studying turtles.

"By this time I'm getting concerned about the way turtles are being exploited overseas. I conceived the idea we should be able to have sustainable tourism around turtles...what you could do and not scare the turtles away," he says.

"In the summer of 1979 I sat down with my boss on the sand dunes and discussed with him a concept for having tourism around turtles.

 

"We debated where was the most effective place to develop that. Mon Repos stood out as the most feasible place to develop sustainable tourism around sea turtles."

But the journey was not as simple as it might seem. A developer had acquired a dairy farm nearby, with plans to build 120 homes and a restaurant along Mon Repos Beach.

"The local community were not necessarily wanted to do anything with the land but didn't want to lose it either," Limpus says.

"Progressively from the 60s through to the early 80s we were having a growing number of people coming down and bringing visitors to see the turtles. We were getting up to 1000 people on the beach at night.

"We were having major disturbances of the turtles. I can remember spitting the dummy one night when there were 500 people crowed around the one turtle. I remember shouting across the turtle to my colleagues 'get your act together and do something to protect these turtles'."

Limpus says the council decided to dedicate the land to conservation but the developer appealed to the Land Court in the early 80s. He lost his appeal and took it to the Supreme Court and was again rejected before he appealed to the High Court, where he was again rejected.

Limpus regards the High Court ruling as a landmark decision because the developer had argued the definition of landscape did not include animals.

By the early 90s, QPWS was in a position to acquire the land and in 1994, the information centre, which still stands today, was built.

But other challenges remained.

"By 1989 we established that our loggerhead population was in catastrophic decline. We identified the major problem was from excessive drowning of turtles in prawn trawlers," Limpus says.

"Taking that message into Fisheries – under which turtles and other marine life still sat – was like taking a pork chop into a synagogue. We had a major confrontation."

But in 1994, under the Nature Conservation Act, whales, dugongs, dolphins and turtles finally fell under the QPWS. Woongarra Marine Park was specifically created to protect turtles at Mon Repos and no summer trawling was permitted.

"Up until 1990, we were getting 30 to 40 of our nesting females washing up dead every summer. In the past 25 years we've had 5," Limpus says.

"We got it right. Within five years we were able to show we had increasing loggerhead numbers.

"There had been an 86 per cent decline in breeding numbers purely because of trawling.

"We had many nights in the season when there were no turtles coming ashore at Mon Repos. It was a significant blow for sustainable tourism."

Limpus says nesting on the mainland is back to levels of the early 80s, but numbers on the nearby islands have declined.

"These are some of the new issues we have to think about. It is almost as if the goal posts keep shifting," he says.

"Mon Repos is the focal area that the public sees because of the tourism and we have the most long-term data set for understanding the biology of these animals."

Limpus says other threats remain such as a series of extreme weather events such as the 2010/11 floods and Category 5 cyclones which used to be rare.

Flood runs offs scour the estuaries and threaten the food source of dugongs and turtles. At the same time sediment kills sea grass and algae.

In early 2017, a new threat emerged when a record hot summer forced researchers to move turtles under the shade of cages which had been built two summers previously to protect them from foxes and dogs.

Another threat to Australia's turtle population lays further afield. Carried by the East Australian current towards New Zealand, the turtles eventually end up in

Peru and Chile where, until a recent global agreement stopped the practice, they were falling foul of long-line fishermen.

As a result, turtles which would previously return to Mon Repos to lay 30 years later, may be in decline by 2025. At the same time, more than 50 per cent of young turtles who leave Mon Repos are now being found to have plastic debris from the ocean in their guts.

But despite all of these threats, Limpus remains positive about the future of Mon Repos' turtles.

"I've got a lot of optimism because these are long-lived animals. I'm meeting turtles at Mon Repos that I've tagged back in 1974/74 that are breeding at Mon Repos now," he says.

"I sit down and hold their flipper and talk to them about old times.

"They are still teaching us new information. There is still plenty to learn."

 

 This blog was written by Christine Retschlag from The Global Goddess. Christine visited our beautiful region thanks to our incredible members and Bundaberg North Burnett Tourism.

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Monday, 19 November 2018

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