Eye in the sky helps green turtles thrive

The largest and most important green turtle rookery in the world lies on the northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, approximately 620 kilometres north-west of Cairns.

Raine Island has been a nesting place for the endangered green turtle for more than 1000 years. The vegetated coral cay covers just 21 hectares and is host to as many as 20,000 nesting turtles at a time. But this marine paradise is under threat. Without action, Raine Island’s role as a turtle sanctuary is in danger of collapse.

Large numbers of females come to the island to nest, but few eggs survive. There are a number of reasons for Raine Island’s turtle hatching failure, including tidal inundation from changed landscape. The tides are destroying thousands of eggs and depleting the already fragile green turtle population.

Adult turtles are at risk as well. As many as 2000 adult female turtles die in a single nesting season, being trapped beneath the island’s rocky cliffs or stranded and heat exhausted on the beach.

The future of the Raine Island green turtle has become even more uncertain. The Raine Island Recovery Project Team is connecting the physical and digital worlds to save this precious marine habitat by using drone technology.

The Raine Island Recovery Project is a five-year collaboration between BHP, the Queensland Government, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Wuthathi Nation and the Kemer Kemer Meriam Nation (Ugar, Mer, Erub) Traditional Owners and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

The project is protecting and restoring Raine Island’s critical habitat to ensure the future of key marine species including green turtles, seabirds and apex predators. In particular, the project is addressing the low nesting and hatching success, high adult turtle mortality and hatching failure to help the recovery of the green turtle population.

“Protecting the island’s precious ecosystem is a priority and the Raine Island Recovery Project is a working example of what can be achieved when we bring together government, business, reef managers and traditional owners for the benefit of the reef,” Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden said.

“Raine Island is such a special place, which is of critical importance to the northern Great Barrier Reef’s endangered green turtle population, nesting seabirds and the many other species that depend on it.”

The introduction of drones has been a game changer for the team dedicated to protecting and restoring this island’s critical habitat.

The technology is helping scientists understand how the turtles behave, in a way that hasn’t been possible before. Researchers can monitor turtle numbers and distribution and nesting beach conditions affecting the low levels of hatching and laying.

Drones are also proving to be an effective method of monitoring other key species that depend on Raine Island’s fragile ecosystem for their survival, including seabirds and apex predators like tiger sharks.

Raine Island is home to the most important seabird rookery in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area, a known breeding ground for some rare and endangered species which can be counted and tracked through the drone monitoring program.

This use of new technology allows for more efficient and accurate data collection than traditional methods. The connectivity that drones allow has rapidly advanced the team’s data collection and monitoring capability, while minimising the impact on this marine paradise, helping preserve the sensitive ecology of the island.

Drone footage is used to monitor habitat impacts by tracking changes to the sand profile of the island caused by erosion. Drones provide far more efficient and accurate topographic mapping, a key part of tracking these ongoing changes to the island’s nesting beach.

These ground-breaking methods of data collection and monitoring have already achieved encouraging results.

Raine Island Recovery Project lead researcher Dr Andy Dunstan said early results of the topographic mapping were showing that the reprofiled area of beach was maintaining itself and resulting in more green turtle hatchlings.

“The trial has also confirmed that by using drones we will be better able to understand and preserve the sensitive ecology of this natural wonder,” Dr Dunstan said.

The Raine Island Recovery Project is an example of what can be achieved when the digital world meets the physical world. When connectivity is used, we can make a huge improvement to Queensland’s environment.

Visit qld.gov.au/DIGITAL1ST to read about other Queensland Government initiatives that put people at the heart of digital services.

DIGITAL1ST is our strategy that outlines the Queensland Government’s overarching approach to delivering great digital services.