Green Turtles double release with GPS trackers, photo credit: Christian Miller

Jennifer Gilbert is a woman on a mission to save turtles! She is the co-founder of the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre (CTRC) in Queensland, Australia, which has been helping to save sick and injured turtles for the last 23 years. Gilbert and her team of over 100 dedicated volunteers, including university students and overseas volunteers, have been providing crucial medical treatment and rehabilitation to the turtles that come into their care.

Recently, at the Ocean Film Festival we sold bracelets to raise funds for the rehabilitation centres. The initiative raised $1,000 and we extend a special thank you to everyone who supported this cause. The money will be used to provide much-needed medical treatment to sick and injured turtles that are brought in for rehabilitation.

According to Jennie, the CTRC started in 1999 in the old aquarium in Cairns with just two marine biologists and one turtle. For the first six years, Jennie and Paul Barnes, cared for a few turtles. However, following a mass stranding event in 2011, the number of stranded turtles increased by 800%, due to unforeseen environmental conditions wiping out the seagrass beds up the east coast of Queensland.

Jennie and her team quickly ran out of room at their small centre. Fortunately, Fitzroy Island Resort stepped forward and donated land, allowing another centre to be set up. Over the years, Cairns Aquarium and James Cook University have also donated areas to set up other centres, including an intensive care centre located near a veterinary hospital in case of emergencies.

Today, CTRC has grown from its humble beginnings to four centres, over 100 volunteers, and is actively involved with local, interstate, and international universities, providing students with the opportunity to learn about turtle medicine.

Releasing Diane back into the ocean, photo credit: Christian Miller

Jennie recalls that every time a turtle comes in, it is a memorable experience. “All times with the turtles are memorable when they come in looking like they are going to die and go back out in the ocean where they belong,” she says. She shares a particularly memorable story about a turtle named “Lou,” who came down from Cape York with horrendous injuries. After surgery, Lou was left with only two flippers, but he was released back into the wild with a satellite tracker, and he travelled an incredible 1,970 kilometres before the tracker stopped. “What an amazing animal, such resilience,” Gilbert says.

Jennie is passionate about saving these gentle creatures of the ocean, which are facing the threat of extinction due to climate change, plastic pollution, and other human-caused threats. “Every turtle has a different personality, they have their favourites, and they know the volunteers,” she says.

Happy Ella enjoying rehab, photo credit: Christian Miller

CTRC relies on donations, small grants, stalls at markets, and educational talks for funding. Gilbert emphasises that every donation counts and is invaluable to the centre’s work.

Apart from fundraising efforts, Gilbert and her team have been working tirelessly to involve first nations people in their volunteer programs and research. They hope to build another centre dedicated to involving first nations people as volunteers and for undertaking research.

Fun Facts about turtles we bet you didn’t know: (courtesy of Jennie Gilbert)

  1. Turtles are amazing creatures that have been around for over 150 million years. 
  2. There are seven species of marine turtles worldwide, with Australia being home to six of them. 
  3. These creatures have lungs like humans and have to surface to breathe.
  4. They can slow their heart rate down to one beat every five minutes and can stay on the bottom to rest for up to five hours. 
  5. Turtles do not have teeth but have specialised jaws for what they eat.
  6. Sand temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings, and climate change may be the end of marine turtles over the decades.

Gilbert urges everyone to do their part to save these incredible creatures. “If everyone picked up one piece of rubbish every day, there would be 300 million less pieces for animals to be killed with ingestion and entanglement,” she says.

An image from Jennifer’s personal collection of the affects of entanglement

Current rehab centres:

Started in Cairns aquarium in Cairns Pier Shopping Centre in 1999

Then moved to Tingira street 2000 which closed 2020

Set up at Fitzroy Island 2011

Set up Cairns Aquarium  2017

James Cook University Eduaquarium Turtle Tunnel: 2016

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