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Exceptional Scientists: Turtles, Fish and Fossils

At the start of this year, a family friend told me about a STEM course at James Cook University that was all about marine biology. The course was called Fisheries: resilience for the future. As soon as I heard about the possibility I wanted to sign-up and I emailed Ms Ellyett asking her to support me in this endeavour. Ms Ellyett was fully supportive of this and I have been doing this online course since early this year. The course has been really valuable for me and has taught me much more than I could have learnt from just reading on the internet. It has also built my research skills and my confidence and given me a much broader understanding of the issues facing marine ecosystems.

My name is Michael Hamilton and this a story that begins in May 2017. In May last year, I had the amazing opportunity of accompanying my Dad and his colleagues on a field trip to Solomon Islands, where our mission was to place satellite tags on 10 nesting hawksbill turtles. Our destination was the Arnavons Islands, a remote group of islands that support the largest rookery for nesting hawksbill turtles in the South Pacific. The critically endangered hawksbill turtles that nest on the Arnavons were hunted almost to the brink of extinction by the 1980s, but today the Arnavons are a conservation success story, with nest numbers on the island group having increased by over 200% since the establishment of the Arnavons Community Marine Park in 1995.

The purpose of the satellite tagging was threefold: firstly, to determine if the existing boundaries of the Arnavons marine park were sufficient in size to protect hawksbills throughout their nesting season; secondly, to establish where turtles migrated to after they finished nesting (their foraging grounds); and thirdly, to raise awareness on the plight of this species. The fieldwork consisted of walking the nesting beaches at night to locate nesting hawksbill turtles, relocating captured turtles to temporary holding pens, and fibre-glassing satellite tags onto the turtle’s shells and then releasing them. I learnt so much from this hands-on experience, including how indigenous park rangers relocate eggs above the high tide mark, the numbers of eggs that a hawksbill will lay (100 to 200 eggs) in a single clutch, the very low survival rates of hatchlings and the many conservation challenges this species face.

What really surprised me though was just how heavy turtles are! We had to often carry turtles from the nesting beach to the field station, something that took four people and was exhausting work. At one stage I was asked to lead a 90kg turtle, that rangers had put a leash on, through knee-deep water in a lagoon. I attempted to get the turtle to swim beside me as I walked towards the field station, but much to everyone else’s amusement, the turtle had quite different ideas and pulled me into an unsuspecting group of stingrays. Back in Brisbane I was able to follow the movements of the tagged turtles. Amazingly, many of the turtles that nest on the Arnavons swim back to foraging grounds in Australia. One of the turtles we tagged in May 2017 swam back to Fraser Island, swimming over 1800 kilometres to reach her foraging grounds. The long distances that these turtles travel between nesting and foraging grounds highlights how highly migratory animals are shared resources, and some of the challenges in conserving them. My time in the Arnavons really inspired my passion in science and the marine environment, and in December 2017 I completed my open water SCUBA course at Stradbroke Island. On the dive course I got to swim with juvenile hawksbill turtles around my age, which may have been born on beaches at the Arnavon Islands.

In July this year I had another amazing opportunity to help my Dad conduct underwater surveys of Bumphead Parrotfish and Napoleon Wrasse in the Western Province of Solomon Islands. These two large iconic species are considered indicators of coral reef health and, thanks to what I had learnt from my JCU course, I had a much broader understanding of the how coral reef ecosystems worked and coral reef fisheries. I also discovered that scientists have a lot of strange pastimes. One of the things we did on this fieldtrip was collect several dead Bumphead parrotfish from the local fisheries. We then boiled up their heads so that we could preserve their jaws. My dad spent a lot of time re-boiling and sun-drying jaw bones and keeping them away from the cats. It turns out that the jaws of bumphead parrotfish consist of some of the strongest biological materials known, and there is interest in seeing if the structure of their jaws can be synthetically manufactured.

It’s the experiences I have had in the past 18 months that have given me a strong interest in science and, in the past year, I have developed a keen interest in palaeontology or, as I like to think of it, the story of life. I want to get as much practical experience as I can, and on some of my weekends in Brisbane I search for fossils – it’s amazing what you can find if you just look. Next year I will be fortunate enough to be one of 25 CHAC students on the Fiji Tour in the July break, to help scientists undertake research on terrestrial and marine environments. This will be a wonderful opportunity to gain a wider understanding of the tropical ecosystems and the complexity of their workings.

I am truly grateful for all the opportunities that I have been given and the people who have helped me gain these experiences over the last couple of years.

Michael Hamilton, Year 10