Turtle lovers come out of their shells
CALLING all fishers, surfers, divers and anyone else who spends time in, on or around the ocean: if you love turtles, it's time to come out of your shells.
Ballina-based James Cook University PhD student Rochelle Ferris put out a public call on Monday for help gathering data on turtles.
"I'm conducting a survey of sea turtle sightings in NSW to see exactly how far south they go," she said.
"I did a road trip earlier in summer from Tweed Heads to Eden... I visited every headland and estuary looking for turtles and people who have seen turtles."
Divers were quick to respond, Ms Ferris said, including Ray Vran who gave her a rare photo of a turtle and a seal sharing the same habitat off Montague Island south of Sydney.
"That's only seen in two other places in the world," Ms Ferris said, "The Galapagos Islands and Hawaii".
Ms Ferris said seals usually preferred cold waters whereas turtles needed minimum temperatures of 15 degrees.
She said a seal colony lived and bred on Montague Island year-round but Mr Vran, who dived around 30 times in the area each year, only every saw one turtle once per year.
Other people said they'd seen a turtle near the island but the scientist's next job would be to go through Mr Ferris's diving records to work out whether the sightings happened at the same time annually.
Her research would hopefully fill a gap in official NSW turtle data that might lead to changes in law, such as requirements for trawling nets to have "turtle excluder devices" that help turtles escape without affecting target species, Ms Ferris said.
"That rule was implemented in Queensland some 20 years ago and has had a positive impact for loggerhead turtles," she said.
Ms Ferris mentioned the shark net trial on the NSW north coast, saying representatives from Australian Seabird Rescue taught DPI contractors last week to identify and tag turtles in hopes of having all turtles caught in shark nets tagged.
Citizen scientists were keen to contribute to her data collection on her recent field trip and she hoped for a similar response on the Northern Rivers.
"I reckon I've got somewhere towards 400 confirmed turtles sightings from a wide variety of sources - divers, people walking on the beach, fishermen," she said.
Ms Ferris said anyone who saw a turtle on the east coast of Australia was welcome to share their information via an online portal.
Only authorised scientists were allowed to touch turtles in the wild but Ms Ferris said citizen scientists could guess the length of turtles by comparing the distance of shells from neck and tail to their own bodies (for example, a turtle might be as long as your leg) - a turtle's age was calculated based on shell length.
Ideal photos would be side profiles - both sides - of a turtle's head because recent technology could scan the unique scales on turtle's faces the way police scanned fingerprints or like social media photo identification.
Tagged turtles could be identified by checking (without touching) the arm pit of the front flipper for a small silver tag with an engraved number, Ms Ferris said.
So far, she had noticed a couple of regular turtles around Julian Rocks Marine Reserve near Byron Bay: K24268, a hawksbill turtle and NS157, a loggerhead turtle.