WHOA-factor! Loggerhead Turtle Hatchlings Descend On Brisbane In Aussie-first Encore

20 March, 2017

In an Aussie-first, Queensland Museum's Patrick Couper steps up as 'surrogate mum' to 70 loggerhead turtle eggs collected from Mon Repos, incubated at exactly 29.9 degrees and miraculously timed to hatch 'live' at this week's World Science Festival Brisbane.

'First, you were like, whoa! And then we were like, WHOA! 
And then you were like, whoa…
' [Crush, the turtle; Finding Nemo]

Nothing prepared Patrick Couper his first time round as 'surrogate turtle mother'. A daunting task in itself, let alone on a global stage, with all eyes watching an Australian first!

More accustomed to working with creatures at the other end of the life spectrum, the Queensland Museum Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians won't soon forget sleepless nights, pacing and week-end trips into the office. A mix of excitement and anxiety, 'slightly more worrying' than becoming a first-time Dad.

“I'd never seen turtle eggs at the point of hatching before… and I was like 'WHOA! What's happening here?” says Patrick of his debut before 120,000+ crowds at last year's inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane. An epic and exclusive 'Sister Act' to New York's World Science Festival, firmly staking its claim on the It's Live! in Queensland calendar until 2021. This year's festival kicks off on Wednesday (22 March).

For Patrick, it was a momentary baptism of fear, when, a day before the festival, once perfectly-round, golf ball-sized turtle eggs started to pucker out of shape.

Precious eggs collected two months earlier from nests at Mon Repos, near Bundaberg, as part of the world-renowned Queensland Turtle Conservation (QTC) project; meticulously incubated at exactly 29.9 degrees; and timed to hatch over the festival's five days.

“As the eggs get really close to hatching, they start to collapse; so, you get all these great big dimples appearing in them and I was very worried,” says Patrick.

“Fortunately, a little head popped out and I realised that was the norm, but I was actually quite concerned. So, a lot of those things won't be a worry this year.

“The Hatchery was great last year and the thing I found amazing was dealing with the public and seeing how they related to it and Queensland's conservation success story.

“There were lots of questions, including would the turtles come back and nest on the banks of the Brisbane River [*short answer: no]! But, the best part was watching people's reactions as turtle heads pop out of the eggs… something you can't see anywhere else.”

Indeed, in the wild, this cycle of life is hidden from view, at least until hatchlings burst free from their egg chambers, tirelessly constructed deep beneath the sand by nesting turtles on an annual pilgrimage to Mon Repos. A miracle in itself that any one of them make it, given an estimated one in 1,000 hatchlings survive until sexual maturity, 30 to 35 years later.

Picking up the gauntlet from where the mother turtles left off, Patrick is 'very protective' of 70 loggerhead turtle eggs now under his watch. He's cared for them behind the scenes at Queensland Museum since 22 February, having successfully avoided all pot holes on the 'slow and steady' drive, transferring the eggs from Bundaberg to Brisbane.

“Actually, the eggs are usually reasonably robust at that stage, but suffice to say I was very alert and driving very carefully!

“We drive with the air conditioner on all the way, even if we have to stop for any reason, until the incubator is safely in the museum's collection room, where a stable temperature can be maintained at precisely 29.9 degrees.”

Here, the irony is not lost on Patrick that Queensland Museum's collection room is 'stuffed' full of hatchling predators – the subject of taxidermy work, so life-like you could be forgiven for thinking a hundred eyes are watching. Birds, foxes, feral pigs and more.

“Yep, everything is out to eat turtle hatchlings. Ghost crabs take them on the beach, and when I was up at Crab Island, in Cape York, tagging turtles with my wife for two weeks, some of the nests, as the hatchlings emerged, got absolutely hammered by predators.

“Some had a cluster of nankeen night herons around them and I'd say almost every head that popped out was taken.”

Outside his day job as Queensland Museum curator, describing 53 new reptile species and six new genera since 1984 – also moonlighting as Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang's guide into Lamington National Park for inspiration ahead of his epic Falling Back to Earth exhibition – Patrick's keen interest in the conservation of marine turtles has been shaped by his 27-year friendship with turtle legend, Dr Col Limpus.

Of note, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the QTC project, started by Col (Bundaberg born and raised), who grew up with turtles – at the age of five sitting on the beach with them and spending every New Year's Eve since 1956 (bar one) at Mon Repos watching quietly as the grand old dames of the ocean return to nest.

Holding the position of Chief Scientist (Threatened Species Unit) with the Queensland Government's Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, Col's much-anticipated 'Let's Talk Turtles' event at World Science Festival Brisbane, alongside Patrick, has already sold out.

The Hatchery, however, a free event open to all during the five-day festival, will be manned by Patrick and a team of volunteers, including those recruited to help monitor turtle nesting/hatchling season (November – March) in the wild under the QTC project, with an estimated 10,000 'citizen scientists' enlisted to date.

“That's a feature of a program like this,” says Col. “We see visitors who come back year after year explicitly, in the extreme, to see particular turtles at Mon Repos on Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger-guided turtle encounters.

“And we get children who visit, grow up and join us as volunteers, with a number going into careers in conservation.”

This season, Col delighted in the return of a special visitor: a 56-year-old turtle, nick-named Sweet Pea (by local students turned junior turtle rangers at St Luke's Anglican School), who laid 491 eggs after a nine-year absence. First tagged at Mon Repos in 1989, Sweet Pea has laid close to 3000 eggs over six nesting seasons.

Adding another important layer to the conservation message behind The Hatchery (a collaboration between Queensland Museum, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and SEA LIFE Sunshine Coast), this year's World Science Festival Brisbane (22-26 March) also features tanks filled with jelly fish and plastic bags – the latter often dumped in waterways and mistakenly eaten by marine turtles, proving lethal.

According to the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, plastic bags, discarded fishing gear, plastic and glass bottles, rubber thongs, aerosols and drink cans are commonly found in the reef region. Further, a World Economic Forum report, released January 2016, estimates the ocean holds more than 150 million tonnes of plastics and warns that in a business-as-usual scenario it will contain more plastics than fish by 2050.

Aside from loggerhead turtles hatching live at World Science Festival Brisbane, 'hatched' flatback turtles, also collected from Mon Repos, will again be displayed in tanks.

On 21 February, a group of nine flatback turtles that enchanted crowds at last year's festival – since cared for at SEA LIFE Sunshine Coast – were fitted with miniature solar-powered satellite tags for tracking (to further inform conservation research) and released off Bundaberg, into the East Australian Current. Loggerhead hatchlings, meanwhile are released shortly after the festival (by SEA LIFE aquarists) 20km off the coast of Mooloolaba to avoid predators that hunt in shallow coastal waters.

Here, Patrick Couper has one wish: “I hope they all outlive me!”

[Click here to download photos]

Did you know? The Great Barrier Reef is home to six of the world's seven species of marine turtle, with Mon Repos supporting the most significant population of endangered loggerhead turtles in the South Pacific. During the 2016/17 turtle nesting season, around 30,000 visitors joined Mon Repos Turtle Encounter tours to witness nesting and hatchling turtles. This season, more than 400 nesting turtles were recorded along the Woongarra Coast including Mon Repos beach, up from just 150 in 2000 (a year before the compulsory introduction of turtle exclusion devices into trawl fisheries). While the loggerhead turtle population is 'recovering', ongoing threats include plastics pollution, boat strike, feral predators, crab pots and increasing sand temperatures. For young turtles, an even greater threat lies beyond Australian waters, in the form of long line fisheries off South America.

Get your geek on! World Science Festival Brisbane (22-26 March) promises a marriage of science, natural history, conservation and the arts as never experienced before, staged at Queensland Museum, in theatres, galleries and on South Bank's Cultural Forecourt! Think mind-blowing robots (including untethered, über intelligent underwater bots designed to help protect the world's biggest natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef); the art of taxidermy; science behind wine appreciation and 'selfies'; why colouring-in books are not just child's play; Stanley Kubrik's cult sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey as you've never 'heard' it before; DIY drones; hairy encounters with not-so-scarey spiders; and the future of driver-less cars.

Don't miss Australia's best live events in the best destinations: www.queensland.com/events

For general enquiries, contact:
Shelley Thomas, Publicist – It's Live! in Queensland
P: 07 3535 5665 / 0422 041 285 / E: shelley.thomas@queensland.com

For specific enquiries about World Science Festival Brisbane or to interview Patrick Couper:
Christine Robertson, Senior Media Officer – Queensland Museum
P: 07 3840 7789 / 0417 741 710 / E: christine.robertson@qm.qld.gov.au

For specific enquiries about the Queensland Turtle Conservation project:
Anna Hanson, Media Director – Department of Environment and Heritage Protection
P: 07 3339 5831 / 0423 020 746 / E: media@ehp.qld.gov.au

Editor's Notes:
Click here to go behind the scenes via a special video, 'Miracles in the Hatching'. 
*Raw footage from the video can also be accessed here.

Ends.


Word Count: 1500
Author: Shelley Thomas

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