A turtle’s tale: Izzy the green sea turtle goes home

If you’re like me and every time an animal story comes on TV your eyes well up, you might want to reach for a tissue right about now… (don’t worry this story has a happy ending).

This is the story of how Izzy the Great Barrier Reef green sea turtle went home.

Sea turtle release Great Barrier Reef

As a sea turtle, the odds are stacked against you before you’re even born. First your mum has to leave the ocean where she’s spent the first 30 or so years of her life and painstakingly drag her 120kg+ body, centimetre by centimetre, up a beach to find the perfect spot to dig a hole and lay her clutch of eggs. Then, without a backward glance, she drags herself back down the beach to the sea, never to see you again.

Turtle laying eggs Lady Elliot Island

Although you’re snugly encased in a protective shell and buried in a warm, dark hole in the sand, you’re not safe. For the next 6-8 weeks, you’re hostage to the vagaries of nature – high tides that threaten to wash you away and predators like birds and snakes. Once you hatch, at just 6cm long and weighing less than 50 grams, you need to dig your way to the surface and scurry as fast as your tiny flippers will take you to the relative safety of ocean, dodging seabirds looking for a turtle-hatchling snack.

(Turtle fact: the temperature of the sand determines a turtle’s sex. Warmer sand during the middle of the third incubation period is likely to produce more girls and cooler sand likely to produce more boys.)

If you do make it to the water, find food and don’t get eaten, you may be the lucky one in 1000 to survive to adulthood. As a grown up turtle (sea turtles reach adulthood at around 30) there are still plenty of dangers facing you including sharks, crocodiles, fishing nets, boat propellers and illness.

Reef HQ turtle hospital

If you’re a sea turtle who lives in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, you have a better chance than many of reaching old age (60-80 in turtle years). You live in the world’s largest coral reef marine park and if you’re sick or injured, help of the human kind is at hand in the form of Townsville’s Reef HQ Aquarium Turtle Hospital, a special facility where turtle carers will nurse you back to health – no matter how long it takes.

Reef HQ is the national education centre for the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s largest coral reef aquarium. As well as offering visitors the opportunity to experience the reef up close, their dedicated turtle hospital has taken care of more than 165 sick or injured turtles since opening in 2009.

Izzy was one of their longer-term patients when I met her.

Reef HQ turtle hospital Townsville

If Izzy could talk, her story of survival would be the stuff of a Disney movie. When she arrived at the turtle hospital in August 2013, she was seriously dehydrated and underweight. She had also fought off a crocodile and been hit by a boat which had damaged her shell. Left alone Izzy would almost certainly have died, but she was lucky to be rescued and given into hands of the dedicated turtle team.

When I met Izzy in late 2014, she had put on 10kg (weighing in at 120kg), her injuries had healed and she’d moved from the turtle hospital ward into ‘rehab’. Izzy was happily doing laps of the tank, but for a turtle who had spent most of her life swimming hundreds of kilometres up and down the Queensland coast, she was itching to go home.

Izzy the sea turtle goes home from Reef HQ

Releasing a sea turtle back into the wild needs to be as carefully planned as any tactical manoeuvre. For starters, you need a truck and a tank big enough to hold a 120kg turtle comfortably for a long drive (turtles are always released back into the area they were found and Izzy’s home was Bowen, around 1.5 hours south of Townsville). It then takes several burly types to carefully carry the turtle down to the water, checking the tides are right so the turtle doesn’t need to crawl too far across the sand. You then need to make sure the turtle swims out to sea without being disoriented or stressed, hope for the best – and then walk away.

For the carers who looked after Izzy, the day is bittersweet – they’re sad to see her go, but happy she’s going home. Izzy has been fitted with a radio tracker so they can keep tabs on her progress for the next year or so until it becomes dislodged (or the batteries die).

As I watched Izzy head back out to sea without a moment’s hesitation to face the freedom and the dangers that life as a wild turtle entails, I felt a prickle at the corner of my eyes.

There’s something about turtles – perhaps it’s because they’re one of the most ancient creatures on the planet, the odds they have to fight to reach adulthood, or those big eyes that look at you from the depths of an old soul. Whatever it is, Izzy has been given a second chance on life and now it’s up to her.

Izzy turtle tracker

Postscript: Izzy was tracked for 72 days after being released until it’s thought her tracker became dislodged or the battery went flat. During that time, she travelled an impressive 671km (including 21km swimming in a straight line) back and forth along the Queensland coast between Bowen and Mackay.

She would have spent her days foraging for food (green sea turtles are herbivorous and eat mostly seagrass and algae), swimming with the flow of the currents, hanging out with other turtles and marine life, and possibly coming eye-to-eye with the occasional snorkeller or scuba diver.

While life in the wild can be tough, the freedom to explore the Great Barrier Reef and literally go with the flow has its own rewards. You can track Izzy’s journey via Reef HQ Aquarium’s and James Cook University’s turtle tracker here.

Turtle laying eggs Mon Repos

You can encounter wild turtles laying and hatching on Queensland’s Southern Great Barrier Reef at Mon Repos, Lady Elliot or Heron Islands and visit Reef HQ‘s turtle hospital in Townsville.

Find out more about the sea turtles of the Great Barrier Reef here.