With 349 turtles, 1,349 birds and 81 sea snakes being rescued over the past three years, Ballina’s iconic Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue (ASTR) is modernising and expanding. Assistant Manager Amanda Philp talked to The Echo about what’s happening at the rescue centre on North Creek Road during the school holidays.
She said ASTR are offering tours each weekday at 10am, the perfect thing for anyone interested in local wildlife, but they’re popular, so remember to book! The number for the office in Ballina is (02) 6686 2852.
Ms Philp said the tours cover everything that happens at Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue, with a number of new displays, although visitors can’t meet sick birds in person, because it causes them too much stress.
The exciting news is that birdcam is coming soon, which will livestream images of the birds in care to the big screen inside the centre, thanks to generous support from Southern Cross Credit Union and Canon.
Visitors also learn all about turtles, which are nesting on beaches across the north coast now. After meeting the always popular freshwater resident turtle Frankie, visitors go into the Sea Turtle Hospital and learn about the issues that carers are seeing with the species that come into care.
While there aren’t as many turtles in care as in recent years (at one stage there were 32!), there are still malnourished turtles appearing in the area, and some with floating syndrome, which is caused by a buildup of gas internally.
Don’t cut the line!
Ms Philp said there were also lots of birds with fishing-related injuries, which started accelerating during COVID, with people getting outside more and a corresponding buildup of fishing-related rubbish in the environment. ‘The more we can educate people, the better it becomes’.
For fisherpeople, she said, ‘The message is “do not cut the line!”
‘We don’t have an issue with fishing in general, you know, go out and have fun. But if for any reason you do catch a bird, give us a call. We’ve always got rescuers available.
‘Don’t leave hooks and lines and whatever you go there with, take it away with you.’
In terms of turtles, Ms Philp said there were eight in care at the moment, and no sea snakes, but that situation could change fast. ‘Fingers crossed it doesn’t go too crazy.’
One of the turtles in care is recovering beautifully from a severe back flipper injury, possibly a bite, which looked very serious initially.
While flooding issues in the region and further north still appear to be affecting turtle food sources, there are many unknowns, with human impacts affecting turtles at every stage of their life cycles.
Ms Philp (who is a Marine Science graduate herself, and was Tweed Shire’s 2021 Citizen of the Year) said there were lots of studies going on to try to learn more.
She said it was good they were seeing less turtles in care who had ingested plastic, but there were still too many injuries and deaths, although ASTR has a great record of returning healthy animals to the wild.
‘With that floating syndrome, with the gas, we just work with them to try and remove that,’ Ms Philp explained. ‘So we get them to dive for their food. And that will start to expel it out of them, it can typically take four to six weeks…
‘The floating can be caused by parasites, lung issues, sometimes toxins in their food from the floods or other different things that are contributing out there.’
She said turtles could deal with the problem by themselves in the wild, in mild cases, but not when they become severely emaciated, and the more they float, the less they are able to eat.
So when people come across a distressed turtle, what should they do?
‘If you’re on a boat and they’re in the water, just give us a call. That way, we can determine what’s best. Most of the time, if they’re floating, they can’t dive down. Sometimes we’ll get people to bring the turtle onto their boat, and then we can pop it into the hospital here. We’ve got someone on our rescue phone 24/7.’
The rescue number is 0428 862 852.
Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue operates all the way from Sandon River to Tweed Heads. ‘We’ll just basically come down and grab them,’ said Ms Philp. ‘That way we give them the best chance.’
Nesting is also being affected by 4WDs on beaches, with hatchlings particularly vulnerable if their path to the ocean is blocked by deep tracks.
Amanda Philp says once the turtles lay their eggs (usually late summer, say from the end of January to March), hatchlings emerge after 60 to 80 days.
She asks people to remember there might be a nest in the area. ‘Slow down and just be aware that there could be little hatchlings making their way to the ocean.’
She said there were a great group of volunteers at ASTR currently, but the organisation could always use more. ‘Yeah, we’ll probably be looking at doing new workshops in the coming months.’
What sort of issues are you seeing with birds at the moment?
Amanda Philp said apart from fishing-related injuries, they were getting extremely exhausted shearwaters who were struggling to complete their migrations.
‘A lot of times they don’t make it, but we do our best.’ She said there were two in care at the moment that were putting on weight and doing well. ‘So hopefully fingers crossed for those!’
She said they are still getting sea snakes too, which get injured from boats and trawler nets and wash up in severe storms.
‘Yes, they’re incredible animals. We released the yellow bellied sea snake back out into the ocean off Julian Rocks.
‘About a month or so ago now. And then a couple of other elegant ones have come into care too, they often have spinal injuries and broken ribs.
‘I talk about them in the tours. They’re pelagic species, so they’re never supposed to come out of the water. They shouldn’t be on sand at all. Obviously they’re highly venomous so we don’t want people picking them up. Call us!’
Bigger and better
Thanks to generous support from the public, and grants, the turtle hospital is about to expand again, with a lot of new equipment on the way and space to deal with many more turtles at peak periods.
Lance Ferris’s legacy seems to be in very safe hands, with a major new illustrated display at the centre highlighting ASTR’s history, and a lot of optimism about what’s coming next for the organisation.
Amanda Philp’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the local wildlife is very infectious.
As she says, the more time you spend with turtles and birds, the more you realise everyone is an individual, just like people are.
People of any age can learn more about Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue by joining a tour any time between now and 25 January. Ring (02) 6686 2852 to book.
If you come across a seabird or turtle in distress, please ring the emergency hotline on 0428 862 852.
ASTR is currently running a major raffle to support the turtle hospital rebuild, with ten amazing prizes including two nights at Elements Byron Bay, fitness memberships with Anytime Fitness, and scuba diving trips with Sundive.
You can find out more about the raffle and buy tickets here. One ticket is $5, five tickets are $20, or you can get fifty tickets for $150.
Amanda Philp said people can also support the good work of ASTR by going to the Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue website, and donating via Paypal.