Lady Elliot Island: Rays & Turtles
At Lady Elliot Island we learned about the many diverse animals that live in the reef. Two animals that were particularly interesting to me were the Manta Rays and the different species of sea turtles.
Lady Elliot Island is a coral cay off the coast of Australia and it is the most southern part of the Great Barrier Reef. It is so far away from land (80 miles) that rivers are not close enough to the island to make the water murky. On a clear day you can see 60 feet under the water. The island is closer to the continental shelf than it is to main land, therefore many Manta Rays, sea turtles, and over 1,200 different species of marine life can be seen. The Island staff does a great job of educating their visitors. I learned a lot about the history and sustainability of the Island, but what I valued the most is what I learned about Manta Rays and sea turtles.
There are three different species of sea turtles that can be seen at Lady Elliot Island: the Hawksbill Turtle, the Loggerhead Turtle, and the Green Turtle. All three of these species are endangered, however, the Hawksbill Turtle is the most endangered out of the three turtles that you can see on Lady Elliot. Hawksbill turtles are mostly hunted for their unique shells to make jewelry and their eggs are eaten as a delicacy in some parts of the world. The Green Turtle and Loggerhead Turtle shed their shell plates causing their shells to be very thin and not good for jewelry. The Hawksbill turtle does not shed its shell plates, making its shells very thick and good to make jewelry with. We were able to speak with sea turtle expert John Meech, who was working at Lady Elliot Island to help out with the turtles for a bit. He is a passionate man who has been studying sea turtles for 31 years. He shared with us the unfortunate story of how during the 1900’s, South East Asia locals would flip the Hawksbill Turtles on their back and put them over a fire, enabling them to remove only the shell of the turtle then releasing them barely alive (and without shell) back into the ocean, thinking that the turtle would grow a new shell.
Hawksbill Turtles do not nest on Lady Elliot Island but we did see them in the water and could swim with them. Green Turtles and Loggerhead Turtles do nest on Lady Elliot Island and we had the amazing opportunity to see them laying eggs and we even got to help some of their hatchlings into the ocean. We learned that sea turtles nest on the same beach as they were born on because do not realize that it is possible for them to nest on other beaches; they think that the beach they were born on is the only beach that is capable of hatching their eggs.
We had the opportunity to help John Meech deal with some baby sea turtles. When we met him he was digging out about 100 little hatchlings who had accidentally tried to venture into the ocean too soon. He handed my little brother and I the smallest, cutest, little turtles for us to put into a bucket so that they could all be released later on that night, at a time where they would have the bright moonlight to follow and successfully make their way to the ocean. Meech has a theory that the Green Turtle can possibly live up to 400 years old.
The species of Manta Ray that can be seen in the coral reef of Lady Elliot Island is called a Reef Ray. There are two biological species of Manta Rays, and the other species is known as an Oceanic Ray. Manta Rays are a kind of cartilaginous fish, that are in the same class as sharks, saw fish, and sting rays. The reef rays that we saw on Lady Elliot island have a unique design of black splotches on their stomaches that is like a human thumb print, making them uniquely identifiable. Very little is known about Manta Rays and scientists are still researching how long Manta Rays live and where and when they give birth to their young. Only near Lady Elliot Island has there been a recording of a Pink Manta Ray. Scientists have no idea why it is pink, but it is said that it behaves like a normal Manta Ray and interacts normally with other rays. It has been spotted twice on Lady Elliot Island, and Scientists still cannot determine why the Manta Ray is pink. Manta Rays are not believed to have a patterned migration. If they do migrate, scientists cannot determine where they migrate to or why they do it. More research is being done about Manta Rays, but because they live for so long and are hard to track, data is hard to collect. It will probably be years before the secrets of the Manta Rays are discovered.