Into The Industry: Turtle Conservation

Rebecca Daniel

This week we caught up with marine biologist, conservationist, and divemaster Natalie Robson who's studied and worked with sea turtles throughout University and is now protecting the populations living around the Conflict Islands. Keep reading to discover what life is like as a conservation officer in a remote location...

Photo: Natalie Robson

Photo: Natalie Robson

Hey Natalie! Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a marine scientist and divemaster from Perth, Western Australia. I completed an honours degree in marine biology from the University of Western Australia in 2014. My area of interest is sea turtles. Throughout University I volunteered with sea turtles on several different projects before completing my honours project on the “Use of Particle Tracking to Determine Optimal Release Dates and Locations for Rehabilitated Neonate Sea Turtles”. In 2016 I was lucky enough to get a job working as a Conservation Officer at the privately-owned Conflict Islands, Papua New Guinea.

You’ve built your life around the ocean. What drew you to it in the first place?

I grew up by the beach in Western Australia, whether it was surfing lessons at Trigg Beach or snorkelling on the Ningaloo reef, I was always in the water as much as possible. When I was 10 years old my family took a road trip along the WA coastline from Perth to Broome. During this trip I was exposed to many different environments, from temperate reefs and waves, to beautiful fringing coral reefs and further north to mangroves and tidal flats. Exploring these environments sparked my interest in the diversity and complexity of the marine environment.

What is your current vocation?

I work as a Conservation Officer at the Conflict Islands in Papua New Guinea. The Conflict Islands are owned by English-based Australian, Ian Gowrie-Smith. Ian has always been conservation minded and my role was to help set up turtle conservation out in these remote islands. I worked alongside the island’s managers - Hayley Versace and Ed Cardwell to establish the Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative.

A part of this project I supervise the Turtle Conservation Internship program, where volunteers come out to the islands to tag nesting female turtles, relocate eggs and care for baby turtles in our nursery. We concluded our first turtle tagging season in February 2018!

The beautiful Conflict Islands. Photo: Natalie Robson

The beautiful Conflict Islands. Photo: Natalie Robson

Tell us about Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative, and why it’s important.

The Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative was established in February 2017, with its main goal to conserve the diverse marine life at the Conflict Islands. The Conflict Islands comprise of 21 un-touched islands, located in the pristine waters of The Coral Sea. Inhabited by one third of the world’s species of marine fish, the Conflict Islands boasts one of the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world. It is also an important nesting site for green and hawksbill sea turtles.

Green sea turtles are classified as an endangered species by the IUCN Red List and hawksbill turtles are classified as critically endangered. Hawksbill turtles are expected to go extinct in the next 15 years. In Papua New Guinea turtles are hunted for food and trade. Community engagement and education is an important part of our turtle conservation project.

There is very little known about turtle populations in PNG, especially hawksbill turtles. Our work is creating the first baseline dataset for green and hawksbill turtle populations in the Conflict Islands.

What does a day in your life look like?

On a normal day I spend a lot of time in the office. However during the turtle season I am kept very busy. I am usually up by 8-9am organising activities for the volunteers (beach clean ups, diving etc) and then spend the rest of the morning going through all the data/equipment from the previous patrol.

After lunch volunteers work in the turtle nursery, while I try to catch up on office work and answer emails. At 6pm we start our turtle patrols. We move out to a different area of the atoll each night, patrolling 2-3 islands (depending on the size of the island). We regularly walk around the island and tag all turtles that we come across (sometimes walking up to 20km in a night), if we spot a hawksbill turtle we also take a genetic sample and sometimes we will attach a satellite tag. The patrol usually finishes at 12am. I do this crazy schedule 7 days a week for 4 months!

Turtle hatchlings. Photo: Natalie Robson

Turtle hatchlings. Photo: Natalie Robson

What is your vision for the future of turtle conservation in the Conflict Islands?

Our long term aim is that turtles, particularly hawksbill turtles will be listed as a protected species in Papua New Guinea. I hope that this long-term conservation and protection of these species in the Conflict Islands, as well as more awareness and education about turtle populations in local communities and at a government level, will result in an increase in the turtle numbers in this area.

What is your favourite diving spot, and why?

My favourite dive spots are definitely around the Conflict Islands. It’s tough to pick a favourite, however I would say Irai Island, in the Conflicts atoll, is at the top of my list! Conservation International found that Irai Island had the highest number of coral species ever seen on one dive! The diversity and number of fish and coral seen diving around this island is incredible, turtles and reef sharks are consistently seen on every dive and if you are lucky enough you may even see a hammerhead shark or a manta ray!

Photo: Natalie Robson

Photo: Natalie Robson

Which ocean species is on your bucket list to see?

Whale Sharks!! Despite growing up in Western Australia I still haven’t swam with these magnificent animals!

Whose work has influenced and inspired you?

I grew up watching David Attenborough documentaries. His work really inspired me from a young age and opened my eyes to all the weird and wonderful things nature has to offer!

What advice would you give to people who want to get into this career?

My advice to any students trying to break into the marine industry would be to volunteer as much as possible. It is a competitive industry and employers are always looking for someone with experience (even if you are a graduate). I volunteered on at least 5 different projects with a range of species while I was studying.

Want to know more about what CICI are doing? Check out their Instagram

Into the Industry explores the lives and vocations of professionals, academics and those working in the marine biology world

Want to be interviewed for us? Check out our ‘Get Involved’ section