The morning of the release, the sky is an oily grey and the sand is still heavy with last night’s rain. There’s a small crowd on the beach. They are smiling as they walk down the beach with their large heavy buckets, one person on each handle.
They gather several metres from the shore and unwrap their precious cargo. A volunteer takes hold of the shell by the tip and the tail and walks down to the water’s edge. The turtles are released in groups of two and three, flapping instinctively into the surf as soon as they hit the sand. In a flash they are gone, into the breakers and away to deeper water, as the group lets out a collective whoop. When they put these events on Facebook, hundreds of people turn up to share in this genuine feel-good moment.
Olivia (Olly) Pitt, Southern Cross University marine science graduate, grins from ear to ear. “It just never gets old,” she says. “We’ve released hundreds of turtles and every time it’s the same feeling.”
Olly is the general manager for Australian Seabird Rescue, the Ballina-based organisation responsible for rescuing and rehabilitating these turtles as well as seabirds, shorebirds and sea snakes. Her assistant, Kelsey Ayo, also a Southern Cross University marine science graduate, is soaking in the moment.
The turtle release has been quick, but Olly says getting a sick animal to this point can take months.
When the turtles first arrive, they are placed into freshwater to get rid of the barnacles and other growth that have set like concrete on their shells. They are given a name (Guava, Horatio, Jolene, Manuka and Rainbow to mention a few) which is added to a whiteboard.
The turtles are examined by a vet at the Byron Wildlife Hospital and medicated accordingly – whether it’s antibiotics for infection, wound care or something else. The next few days or weeks pass in small shell pools in the rehabilitation centre in Ballina where they are painstakingly hand fed, their food carefully weighed and charted. As their condition improves, they are placed into bigger tanks where they have to compete for food as they would in the wild, before eventually being released back into the ocean.
Many sadly arrive with stomachs full of plastic. Inside the rehab centre there is a wall full of glass jars, each one containing the plastic retrieved from an animal’s stomach. Some are as a big as a large pickle jar and stuffed to the brim. They call it the wall of shame.
The increase in sea turtle rescues has been dramatic, from about 10 per year a few years ago to upwards of 80. “There are some indications that climate shifts are a cause,” says Olly.
Founded by a philanthropic foundation, Australian Seabird Rescue (seabirdrescue.org.au) is supported by donations and powered by a small army of volunteers who turn up every day to feed and care for the animals.
For Olly, it’s a dream job. “After my Bachelor degree, I did an Honours year and some volunteering, and landed the job here and I love it – no two days are ever the same,” she said.
When she finished high school on the Gold Coast, Olly didn’t originally consider university study. At age 21 however, she decided to leave her job and move to Byron Bay to study Marine Science at Southern Cross University Lismore campus.
“I wasn’t the best at school, but I realised later that you don’t have to be the most educated to pursue a passion – and I think that’s important for people to know,” Olly said.
“The great thing about Southern Cross Uni is the lecturers know you by name and are very interested in helping you succeed.”
As for Byron local Kelsey, she graduated high school and then travelled for a few years before enrolling in Southern Cross University’s award-winning Preparing for Success Program. It got her back into the swing of study and gave her a degree pathway.
In their final year, Olly and Kelsey moved to Coffs Harbour to study at Southern Cross University’s National Marine Science Centre, under the tutelage of scientists such as Professor Kirsten Benkendorff and Dr Anna Scott.
“I was really inspired by Dr Anna Scott. She really showed me you can be a younger female doing inspiring work in the marine science space and in research. She’s a great teacher and she’s inspiring a lot of young women to pursue careers in this area,” Kelsey said.
For Olly, the degree’s practical components and volunteering experience has proved invaluable.
“Southern Cross University has a good reputation for being out in the field and every subject we did had fieldwork involved. That was excellent preparation for the kind of work we are doing now.”
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