Cairns: A Day in the Life

What’s it like to be a volunteer with Oceans 2 Earth at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre? Well, let me show you in photos and words. Come along!

By 7:15 I would be on my way to the meeting point. Because I opted to stay at a local hotel (rather than the hostel used by many — but certainly not all — of the volunteers) my daily walk took me past the amazing Lagoon, a large pool along the Esplanade and adjacent to Trinity Bay. Later in the day, this will be filled with families and fun. Now don’t let the shady walk fool you; it’s already quite warm at 7:15, in the low 80s F (or about 27 C). So, I was always sure to take a water bottle for the day.

After meeting with our team leader for the day and the other volunteers, we would head to the Fitzroy Flyer for our daily commute, a ride of about 45 minutes. This gave us all time for conversation, laughter, reading, card games, or even napping. By 9 am we arrived at the beautiful tropical Fitzroy Island, ready for a short walk to the Centre.

Before we even got to the turtles we were greeted on my last two mornings by this gorgeous spider, only just a little smaller than my hand, who had spun a web above our entrance to the Centre.

Our work here is all about the turtles. There were six here when I started, but by my last day every one of the eight working tanks had turtles: Greens, Hawksbills, and a Flatback. Each had been rescued and brought here in the hope that the expert care offered would help each to recover and, if possible, be released back into the ocean waters of the Great Barrier Reef. This can be a slow process, requiring diligence, dedication, and patience. And there are never any guarantees of success.

The volunteers, after training, were quick to engage in the daily tasks we performed to support the work of the Centre. These include cleaning the filter bags for each of the tanks, a job that requires a hose, a post, and lots of water. It’s wet work indeed! Then the bags which had been cleaned the day before (and which were left soaking in a bleach solution) were rinsed and installed for another 24 hours. The tanks also require daily cleaning using a net and a simple siphon to remove the turtles’ excretions.

Food also has to be prepared and offered. Frozen squid is the primary item on the menu with fish for one or two of the turtles. Before squid can be fed to the turtles it must first be defrosted and the fibrous backbone removed. This is a manual process that became oddly satisfying, though my hands smelled of fish the rest of the day, no matter how thoroughly I washed!

Some of the turtles may be fed by simply scattering the squid (or fish) in the tanks. Most, however, are fed by hand. Or rather by tong as we volunteers are rather fond of our fingers! This is not as easy as it looks. One day I was feeding Angie, one of the original turtles here, and just as I would start to drop the squid into her open mouth she would sometimes move her head, meaning the morsel would drop to the bottom. She’d quickly find and suck it up, usually accompanied by a slap of her fin on the water guaranteed to splash me with a salty yet cooling spray. I do believe that Angie was, in her turtle way, having a bit of a laugh at me. Each of the turtles here has a distinct personality, and Angie certainly leads the way.

The work is not very difficult and even though we wouldn’t arrive until about 9:15, we were often done by 11:45 — or even earlier. This would give us volunteers some time to relax and share in one of the many blessings of volunteering: the opportunity to meet great people from around the world, making new friends and creating lasting memories.

After our various tasks were complete (and there were often other jobs that required our attention), the rest of the day was ours. We could catch the 12:15 ferry back to the city of Cairns or, if we preferred, we were welcome to enjoy the afternoon on this beautiful island. Our options included scenic hikes, a visit to Nudey Beach (“Nudey” in name only; this is very much a family friendly island!), a ride in a glass-bottomed boat, a swim, a snorkel, a scuba dive, or even just find a quiet place to sit and enjoy this lovely corner of paradise.

Myrtle the Turtle

As a volunteer, I found this to be a unique and rewarding experience. First, of course, is the opportunity to work with these amazing animals. Just yesterday I was feeding Myrtle, a turtle had been released last Sunday but within a day suffered being hit by a boat or jet ski, injuring her head and neck. She is in distress, and the leaders at the Centre are doing all they can to restore her to health once again. And I was privileged to a part of that amazing team. Wow!

And, as I noted above, I certainly enjoyed become friends with a special group of people from such a variety of countries and backgrounds.

Finally, this volunteer experience was immeasurably enriched by the inspirational and charismatic leaders with whom I worked, especially Jennie Gilbert, the Centre’s energetic and extraordinarily dedicated and gifted director. I have met truly one of the world’s great advocates. I also must mention Cassie Smith, the gracious and giving research director at the Centre and leader of Oceans 2 Earth. Thank you both for an amazing fortnight!

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