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Connecting for conservation: turtle power at Reef HQ

Connectivity can play an important role in helping to conserve the world’s flora and fauna. Here, we explore how it’s helping turtles in the Great Barrier Reef.

When you think about what the internet is used for, chances are the first thing to cross your mind won’t be beaming videos of sick and injured turtles to students across Australia and the world.

But that’s exactly what Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium is doing with the help of services over the nbn™ broadband access network.

Craig McGrogan, Senior Education Officer at Reef HQ, leads the education charge at the popular Townsville tourist attraction that also houses Queensland’s only Turtle Hospital.

Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium in Townsville, Queensland, home to the Turtle Hospital

And it’s in this hospital that some of the benefits of connectivity are regularly demonstrated as students from near and far are brought (virtually) into the world of the aquarist team.

We recently visited McGrogan at Reef HQ to discover how services over the nbn™ access network are helping the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium with their conservation efforts…

Thanks for having us here at the Reef HQ Turtle Hospital – what’s it all about?

McGrogan: Reef HQ Aquarium opened in 1987 and, in the first 20 years, there was a lot of ad hoc turtle husbandry that was conducted, as and when necessary. It was identified that a dedicated turtle husbandry facility was appropriate and since 2008, we’ve had the facility where I’m standing open to receive sick and injured marine turtles that are found in the local area.

You’re also the National Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority – can you tell us more about that?

A previous chair of the Marine Park Authority thought it would be appropriate to develop an educational centre to give anybody, regardless of their physical ability or the time available to them, [the chance] to come and have a look at aspects of life on the Great Barrier Reef.

So, it was the brainchild of Dr Graeme Kelleher, and opened back in 1987 as that opportunity for all to come and appreciate life on the Great Barrier Reef. And, more importantly, learn how precious and delicate that ecosystem is, and the ways in which we are all able to contribute to looking after it.

The Great Barrier Reef (Getty Images)

What’s your role here, and what does a typical day look like?

As Senior Education Officer at Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium, I have a very varied role. I assist with the diving activities at the aquarium. I assist with tour groups – whether they’re school-aged groups that are visiting, or whether they’re independent travelling groups, coach groups that come in for a short tour of the aquarium. But I guess the most rewarding aspect, I find in my day-to-day activities, is where I can engage with people, whether it’s around Australia or internationally, through our digital outreach education program, which is our video conferencing.

Can you tell us about your videoconferencing?

Our videoconferencing program is a small part of our education program, at this stage, but given that we live in a digital age, it’s bound to become more popular in time to come. It’s got tremendous potential and we’ve got many aspirations to grow our videoconferencing program beyond the ‘underwater reef’ videoconferencing program, that is so popular at the moment, and beyond the ‘turtle connections’ that’s growing in popularity, to being able to deliver any educational program from within our centre through that videoconferencing technology.

Here, McGrogan uses his videoconferencing selfie stick – and his brush on a stick – as he gives Theresa the green sea turtle a scratch:

“And despite the shell – or carapace – being a boney expanse of their skeleton, they’ve got a lot of feeling and sensation through that shell. And particularly around the bridge or the outside of the shell, we can find the ticklish spots and we can stand here for hours giving the turtle a back scratch.

"Now this is typically what they’ll do for themselves. Out in the wild, it’s not unusual to find turtles under ledges, and they’ll keep their carapace – or shell – fairly clean of any fouling marine life. They’ll actually visit what we refer to as ‘cleaning stations’, where different fish species may use their shell as a big dinner plate and graze off any algae or other marine life that has settled upon it. I don’t think she would get tired of me doing this today.”

How do you use the nbn™ access network here?

Since the nbn™ [access network] has been available in the Townsville region, our videoconferencing program has benefited immeasurably from it. We’re able to connect – from underwater even – through our reef videoconferencing program at faster transmission speeds and, thus, allow us to send better quality images and connections internationally.

As an aquarium, we get upwards of 140,000 visitors to the aquarium each year and we can overlay on top of that number thousands of visiting school-age groups and then we can increase our messaging internationally through the videoconferencing. Our outreach digital education allows us to connect with schools, whether that’s nationally around Australia or internationally, and we can send messages about the Great Barrier Reef to groups all over the planet.

How do you do your videoconferencing here at Reef HQ?

With the improvement of mobile technology, we’re able to connect through our videoconferencing system using a small mobile device, such as a phone. We can connect to a cloud-based platform – a meeting room – which participants of the videoconference can also connect to. We can have up to 50 participants located regionally, nationally or internationally – or a mix of those – connecting to the same meeting room and participating in the same event.

So, in short, I’d have my selfie stick with the mobile phone connected wirelessly to the nbn™ [access network], and we’ll have colleagues in another room, our videoconferencing suite, that are able to share content above and beyond what we can show them here. We can embellish any educational program with content sharing or green-screen technology to make it a really engaging educational experience for those participants.

At the time of our visit, 13 turtles had already been admitted to the Turtle Hospital that year and, since 2008, 247 turtles.

Why is it important to exist and do this work with the turtles?

The turtles are a very charismatic part of our marine megafauna and it’s a wonderful opportunity to highlight conservation issues, not just affecting marine turtles but affecting the wider marine environment and the Great Barrier Reef. Giving people the opportunity to get up close to these wonderful marine reptiles, and then explain to them the ways that we can all look after our environment better and contribute to the health and conservation of our marine turtle populations.

What would it mean if the Turtle Hospital didn’t exist?

We’re able to interact with 30,000 visitors each year, bringing them through this facility, and it gives us an opportunity to tell them about ways we can all change our behaviour to help look after turtles. It’s a very powerful space in which to give those messages across. If we didn’t have this facility, then perhaps that messaging wouldn’t be quite as powerful.

It’s pretty incredible to see what lies beneath the shell of a turtle – if only it wasn’t for such dire reasons as looking for fishing hooks, gaseous pockets, and other sources of trouble.

Can you tell us about the turtles you have in the region?

We’re very fortunate here in Australia, we get six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles in our waters, and all six of those seven species have been recorded in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. The species we typically deal with far and away the most here in this facility is the green sea turtle, and that’s by virtue of the healthy sea grass meadows we have in our coastal waters that bring in and support quite a large population of those green turtles.

What does success look like for the Turtle Hospital?

It depends how you measure success – it’s fantastic to be able to assist sick and injured marine turtles where we can. But the most powerful aspect to our Turtle Hospital is the educational aspect, that’s where we get visitors in to understand the plight of certain species of marine turtles, the issues that are threatening them, and how we can change those behaviours to lessen the human impacts on marine turtles.

What you see is what’s been passed by turtles in Reef HQ’s care. Labels include ‘Plastic bag piece passed by turtle’, and ‘Plastic and tarpaulin passed by “Billie”, juvenile green sea turtle from Whitsundays’.

What are your plans for the future at the Turtle Hospital?

Plans for the future of the Turtle Hospital would be to remain a dedicated facility to assist with the husbandry of sick and injured marine turtles, probably engaged with other partners in the local community, most notably James Cook University in the veterinary school there as they develop their knowledge on the best treatment for some of the conditions we see of marine turtles.

Meet the turtles

McGrogan: At the moment, we have three turtles in our facility. Two juveniles and one adult. The two juvenile turtles are relative newcomers, in the last month and a half they’ve arrived at the aquarium and there’s nothing too significantly wrong with them. What the researchers that found these turtles brought to our attention was that they were undernourished, so they’re in for a bit of TLC and a bit of fattening up.

One of the juvenile patients
And our largest turtle, Theresa, is suffering from floating syndrome. Our suspicion is that Theresa has a gut impaction, and by that I mean, a blockage of the intestinal tract. She may have consumed material that has clogged her digestive tract and that inhibits the passage of other food. They go off their diets with a blocked gut, they may get gaseous and begin to float.  

Theresa, a mature-age female, is suffering from floating syndrome

The plight of floating turtles

A floating turtle out in the marine park is on a slow and steady decline. They can no longer feed effectively and, as a floating turtle, they’re more vulnerable to boat strikes, and as they lose condition, would become more attractive to larger predators. Whether that’s sharks or maybe even crocodiles in coastal waters. So getting a big turtle like Theresa into our facility so that she can rest and we can treat that gut impaction, albeit slowly over time, she’s in the safest place she can be and there’s no time limit on how long she can stay with us. We’ve had turtles in our care for in excess of 12 months as they’ve made a slow but steady recovery. 

nbn is very happy with Reef HQ’s experience with the nbn™ broadband access network. Of course, customer experiences may vary. Your experience, including the speeds actually achieved over the nbn™ network, depends on the nbn™ access network technology and configuration over which services are delivered to your premises, and some factors outside our control (like your equipment quality, software, broadband plans, signal reception, whether you are using the internet during the busy period, and how your service provider designs its network).

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