ONE NIGHT LATE in 2017, I knelt on a coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef, watching a green turtle lay eggs. It was 2 am. The moon was high, the sea flickered silver. A few gulls and black noddies called from casuarina trees; otherwise, the beach was quiet.
The turtle sat in a bowl of sand, tilted beetle-like on a gentle angle. I knelt a few centimetres behind her rear flippers. From here I could see her impressive dark shell, flecked with sand, and the top of her leathery head. Switching my torch on, I directed a shaft of light into the egg chamber she had dug. It was a marvellous thing: deep, round and perfectly smooth inside, like a well.
The turtle’s cloaca widened, then, quite suddenly, a creamy, translucent egg plopped out. It was the size of a ping-pong ball, glistening with clear mucous. Another came. And another. After five or so eggs had dropped, she paused and let out a sigh. It was the kind of sigh you might hear in a yoga class: long and full, from the depths of one’s body. On it went, the laying and sighing, until the chamber filled almost to the brim. I counted about eighty eggs in there, piled up like fairytale gold.
The turtle gave one last squeeze. A long string of white fluid emerged. She rested for a minute or two, head down. Then she began thwacking the surrounding sand with her flippers. It flew everywhere, including into my face. She whacked away, sweeping up sand with her hind flippers, until a great pile of it covered the chamber. Then she patted it tight, like a baker with a mound of dough.
HERON ISLAND, WHERE I’d gone to watch turtles, is about eighty kilometres north-east of Gladstone. Mostly a national park, it hosts a marine research station run by the University of Queensland. The island’s only resort, which is where I stayed, markets itself to turtle lovers. You can book a Turtle Room, set among the pisonia forest and providing glimpses of sea between the trees. There are deals for those wanting to see turtles lay eggs (from October to March) or the hatching of eggs (from January to May). Each year, up to 2,000 turtles visit the island to lay. Most are green turtles (Chelonia mydas), but I have also seen a loggerhead (Caretta caretta), with a huge arrow-shaped head and brown heart-shaped shell, come ashore to lay. The loggerhead turtle is listed as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and the green turtle as vulnerable.
In the resort shop you can buy turtle-shaped soft toys, turtle charm bracelets, pendants and earrings, and model turtles crafted in porcelain or metal. Turtles adorn hats, T-shirts, stubby holders and towels. There are turtle-print oven gloves, eye pillows, tea towels and toiletry bags. A painting of a turtle is accompanied by some anthropomorphised turtle wisdom: ‘Just let it all wash over you.’
Everyone wants to see a turtle. On a group snorkelling trip on the Heron Bommie, our guide yelled ‘turtle’ and a mass of arms, legs and GoPros set off in his direction. I have stayed several times on the island and come face-to-face with many turtles in the sea. On my most recent trip, one floated up from a mound of coral and almost collided with me. As I stared at its huge unblinking eyes and honeycomb patterned skin, I had the distinct feeling it had come to check me out. But maybe I’d just spent too long in the tourist shop.
At the resort information centre you can take guided birdwatching or reef walks, or read in the reference library. It was here that I first read, in a short historical brochure, of the turtle cannery that existed on Heron Island from 1925 to 1932. The cannery made turtle soup, a meat extract and dried calipee (turtle fat). Shells and bones were sold for use in fertiliser; the eggs went to biscuit manufacturers. The brochure included part of a letter written by the wife of a cannery owner on the nearby North West Island, which also had a turtle industry. ‘To make one ton of extract it takes 440 turtles at twelve a day or thirty-six days,’ she wrote. ‘One hundred and ninety cases of soup takes 288 turtles at eight cases a day or twenty-six days.’
It felt surreal to sit near a shop brimming with turtle-themed tourist tat, reading about the killing of twelve turtles a day. The brochure reported that the cannery had been located on the site of the resort office, where cheery staff with an array of foreign accents now process bills and room bookings. By 1929, it said, turtles on Heron Island were so scarce the factory owners had to look for them on other islands. By 1932, the cannery had closed.
This short-sighted overharvesting struck me as a portent of our contemporary age of extinction. Six of the world’s seven marine turtle species live in Australian waters. All are either endangered or vulnerable. I wanted to know more about this defunct industry.
THE GREEN TURTLE is named not for the colour of its skin but for the layer of fat lining the inner shell. In the west, turtle meat was once a prized delicacy. In Australia today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people engage in traditional hunting of turtles, and the meat is still eaten in parts of Asia, the Western Pacific, the West Indies and Africa. But in nineteenth-century Europe, the United States and British colonies, turtle soup was wildly popular. Noted food writer Isabella Beeton called it ‘the most expensive soup brought to the table’. Sometimes, it was served in silver, turtle-shaped tureens.
The special quality of this clear, green soup, writes James J Parsons in The Green Turtle and Man (University of Florida Press, 1962), was that it did not ‘cloy’. Still, Parsons describes the soup as so gelatinous that it would set before completely cold and almost ‘stick the lips together’ when eaten. The green calipee was often tinned separately and served as a side dish.
Top chefs debated the best seasonings, stocks and cooking methods. What brought more flavour: turtle fins or steak? The French chef Auguste Escoffier was said to favour soup made with beef stock. Others specified a long, slow cook of turtle carcasses over four to five days. Some turtles were exported live to London. In 1904, the Ship & Turtle Tavern on Leadenhall Street had a large pool where about fifty turtles awaited death. Soup there cost a guinea a litre. After the 1906 death of Lady Curzon, wife of the ex-viceroy of India, a turtle soup containing cream and curry powder was named in her honour.
In Queensland, by 1886 a substantial turtle meat and soup industry had been established in the Moreton Bay area, writes Ben Daley in The Great Barrier Reef: An Environmental History (Routledge, 2014). Most turtles were caught there with nets. One traveller to the Fitzroy River estuary reported that it was customary ‘for drinking salons in the coastal towns to have turtle soup “on tap”’.
In the Capricorn group of islands, which includes Heron, harvesting of nesting turtles began in 1904. Hunters would patrol beaches in the evening, flip turtles on their backs and leave them overnight. They would return at high tide to decapitate them with an axe, taking the meat away by boat. Occasionally, turtles were hoisted live onto boats in slings.
During 1924–25, 1,220 turtles were harvested at North West Island, producing 36,000 tins of soup. Once the Heron Island cannery opened, the combined harvest of the two factories was 2,500 green turtles in 1925–26.
The scientists Anthony Musgrave and Gilbert Whitley witnessed the harvest while visiting North West Island in 1925. The turtles were helpless once turned, they wrote, and would lie on their backs with flippers fruitlessly scooping up sand. ‘They are often left in this position for a whole day or more in the heat of the tropical sun and their plight as they lie with drooping heads, often gasping for breath, is one which cannot fail to excite one’s pity.’ Those hoisted live on boats emitted ‘long-drawn sighs’ on board, slapping their flippers against the deck.
In 1929, the journalist S Elliott Napier described seeing turtles on the islet hours after being turned: ‘their blood injected eyes filmed with mucus, their strained and stiffened flippers flapping hopelessly in their attempts to right themselves’. After decapitation, he said, the headless body was left on the beach for some hours to bleed.
There is a photo in Napier’s book, On the Great Barrier Reef, of two butchers cleaning a turtle. They are boys in shorts, barefoot with smooth chests, who look about fourteen. One holds the headless carcass upright. The other ‘cleans’ eighty or so eggs away from the body.
Turtles can see well underwater, less so above. They have no ears, but can detect low-frequency sounds. When the females are on land a gland near the eye releases excess salt and fluid to keep the eyes moist. They don’t cry.
WHEN I VISITED Heron Island in December 2017, tourists were told to crouch ten metres away from nesting turtles, out of their line of sight, so as not to scare them back into the water.
On my first night, I felt a twinge of shock when I saw a dark, glistening mound rise out of the sea. It was bigger than I’d imagined (green turtles can weigh up to 160 kilograms). I’d had no idea of the effort it would take for this creature – so graceful underwater – to move on land. It was like watching a coffee table haul itself up a beach. She would lunge forward with front flippers, lift her head and drag her body along the sand. After about six such manoeuvres, she’d stop, rest, then begin again. In ten minutes, she might travel just a few metres.
The next morning, I woke at six. On the beach, a woman wearing a yellow hard hat, a head torch and a backpack was trying to direct a turtle off a ledge of jagged rocks, back to sea. She gave the turtle a gentle push on rear. The creature lumbered off, stopping often.
‘She’s making progress,’ the woman yelled. ‘Yes, she’s making progress.’
An American tourist in a T-shirt and three-quarter length pants adopted the role of unofficial turtle bouncer. ‘Can you keep away from her please?’ she implored, as resort guests clutching phones moved nearer, hoping for photos. ‘You need to be ten metres away.’
A plump blonde holding a coffee cup and standing in a cluster of trees directly in front of the turtle held her ground. ‘I am ten metres away,’ she said.
Hard-hat woman followed the turtle, egging her on. ‘C’mon, you can smell the sea.’
The turtle crawled parallel to the rocks, sun glinting on her mottled shell. When she veered towards them, hard-hat woman rushed forward to obstruct her path. The journey was painfully slow. Tourists came and went. It turned out that this woman was a volunteer monitoring turtle laying for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. She’d been up all night; they’d counted 120 turtles. This one had been found jammed between some rocks as dawn broke.
After a good half-hour, the turtle finally found a section of rock low enough and flat enough to drag her body across. She crawled towards the shallows. From here, she would wait to be carried out by the tide. Quite a few other turtles were already sitting there. Seen from a distance, their smooth, round domes looked like upturned Christmas puddings.
After breakfast, I walked across the partially exposed reef to check on the exhausted turtle. Her head, flippers and lower body were submerged in water. Most of her aubergine coloured shell was still dry. I noticed a few scratches on it and a green and white limpet growing on the crown of her head.
ALTHOUGH VISITORS TO the Capricorn islands in the 1920s expressed concerns about the methods used to kill turtles, I’ve found little evidence that many questioned the industry. Musgrave and Whitley reported that dried calipee ‘makes excellent eating when cooked’. S Elliot Napier said turtle steak, cooked with egg and breadcrumbs ‘is exactly like veal cutlet’, though he drew the line at eating poached turtle eggs for breakfast. Napier visited the cannery, a steamy, smelly place where meat was boiled overnight in vats. I haven’t managed to find any photographs of it from that time, but a photo of an abandoned cannery on North West Island, circa 1910, shows a large shed, made of corrugated iron and wood, with a tall, thin chimney. In the foreground, amid lush tropical bushes, is a massive pile of whitened turtle bones.
In November 1929, the marine biologist to the government of Queensland, FW Moorhouse, arrived on Heron Island to study the turtles. His account of his time there suggests he must have been up all night, every night, observing laying, tagging turtles, counting eggs. He measured the shields of young turtles and moved hatchlings to pools or floating cages to protect them from predators.
Moorhouse concluded that not all turtles returned to the island every year but those that did laid eggs up to seven times in one season. While the industry claimed there was an abundant supply of turtles, he wrote, ‘the idea now prevalent that there are thousands of turtles visiting any one island during the breeding season is quite erroneous and must be replaced by a limited number of turtles making many visits to any one island during the breeding season’. Killing females as they came to lay – and destroying the eggs – was clearly unsustainable. He urged fishermen to immediately start planting eggs from killed animals. He had seen eggs floating around in the water used to hose down carcasses on the cannery floor.
In 1932, acting on recommendations from Moorhouse, the Queensland government prohibited turtle harvesting during October and November in waters south of latitude 17 degrees south. In the same year, the factories on both Heron Island and North West Island closed.
However, harvesting continued in other parts of Queensland (and in the Capricorn cays during other months). Turtles were shipped live to the Rockhampton meatworks, writes Alison Rieser in The Case of the Green Turtle (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), where they were made into soup, and the meat and bones were frozen or dried. From there, they were sent to Brisbane and overseas. By 1939, the centre of the turtle-fishing industry had moved from Gladstone to northern Queensland, though harvesting continued in the Capricorn islands. It was another scientist, zoologist Frank McNeill, whose accounts of the cruelty of the industry in Gladstone helped hasten its eventual end. In 1950, says Rieser, on returning to Gladstone after a holiday on Heron Island, McNeill and his companions were horrified to see giant green turtles gasping for breath on the docks. ‘Away from the tempering sea breeze,’ he later wrote, ‘the general discomfort of the still heat caused an immediate and sympathetic reaction to the plight of the suffering animals.’ A ‘miserable small stream of water from a hose’ was sprayed on the captives, but seemed to worsen their distress rather than alleviate it.
They impotently responded by thrashing about with their flippers and struggling in a hopeless way to escape from their tormentors. Here was proof of an ill-considered and cruel exploitation – a practice calculated to endanger the very existence of a quaint edible marine reptile in one of its last world strongholds. Cruelty of this kind has a way of continuing unabated until noticed by someone decisive enough to take decisive action…
McNeill protested about the industry to the Great Barrier Reef Committee in Brisbane. He found, too, that the two-month prohibition on turtle harvesting in southern waters was not being enforced. In May 1950, the committee launched an inquiry into McNeill’s claims. It recommended that the green turtle be given protected status under state law and the Queensland government quickly acted to do so. Yet in 1958, after lobbying from commercial fishermen, the ban on commercial turtle fishing was lifted in the northern Great Barrier Reef in waters north of latitude 15 degrees south. In January and February 1959, writes Rieser, one fishing vessel caught around 1,200 green turtles in the breeding season.
It was not until 1968 that the Queensland government repealed this northern exemption, making all sea turtles a protected species. By then, she observes, the green turtle was ‘more valuable as a tourist attraction than as a fishery’.
THE DAUGHTER OF a friend of mine is crazy about turtles. She has a green, furry turtle onesie, a collection of turtle jewellery, and hopes to be a marine biologist one day. When I told my friend about the turtle-canning industry that once existed in Australia, she went pale. The idea of eating these beautiful creatures was so repugnant to her that I felt I’d overstepped an invisible line even mentioning it. Still, we are endangering the existence of sea turtles in a myriad of ways today.
Sea turtles have been around for more than 100 million years. Yet report after report outlines the threat to them posed by human activity: in particular, climate change and marine debris. Global warming is leading to warmer water temperatures, resulting in coral bleaching on the reefs where turtles live. Warmer temperatures mean more female hatchlings: a sea turtle’s sex is determined by the temperature at which the egg incubates. In January 2018, scientists reported on a study of turtle hatchlings at Raine Island and Moulter Cay, about 620 kilometres north-west of Cairns. It found that 99 per cent of juveniles and subadults were female.
Meanwhile, a study published in late 2017 in the journal Endangered Species Research found that large numbers of turtles were dying after being entangled in ocean debris, most often discarded fishing nets and plastic. There were reports of turtles being found trapped in plastic chairs and six-pack beer holders. The photos accompanying an ABC news story about this problem look like evil art installations. One shows a turtle skull, with empty eye sockets, attached to a tiny carapace completely encased in a bright, blue fishing net. I recently came across a photograph on a National Geographic blog of sea turtles trapped in an abandoned fishing net off the Greek island Makronisos. Thirteen or fourteen turtles were strung together like a makeshift raft, bobbing on the surface of the water. About fifteen plastic petrol bottles were strewn on their delicately patterned shells.
There are the other threats: chemical pollutants in sea water, illegal poaching, land-based predators such as wild pigs, indiscriminate fishing practices, and a shrinking habitat in which to lay their eggs due to coastal development. Facing up to one’s own role in this grim picture is confronting. On a recent trip to the fishing village of Pemuteran, in northern Bali, my family and I visited a private turtle hatchery at a small hotel. Staff there rescue sea turtle eggs from the beach (where they are prone to be eaten by locals and wild dogs) and hatch them in tanks. Tourists then pay a small amount to release a hatchling into the wild.
We inspected various tanks filled with tiny turtles, some no bigger than a matchbox. My daughter held one in her hand and decided to name it Toby. She carried Toby down to the beach and placed the hatchling at the water’s edge. We began filming on our phones and shouted, ‘Go Toby go!’ as a wave pulled it out to sea. But Toby’s chances of survival were slim. (Only about one in a thousand hatchlings live to adulthood.) And in flying to Bali and drinking the bottled water provided in our hotel room, were we adding to his problems?
Discussions around climate change have hardened; even those who accept the science can feel jaded, depressed and unsure what to do. The most pressing issue now seems to be to unite people from different backgrounds – business, government, environmental – to make the urgent changes needed. Part of the challenge of this current moment is that we must create a new normal: transform industries, reduce consumption. We must disrupt, as anthropologist Anna Tsing memorably calls it, ‘the terrible hegemony of business as usual’. Reflecting on Australia’s forgotten turtle industry shows how ideas of what is ‘normal’ can change. When I think of how this industry ended, I am reminded too, that the heroes of the story are scientists.