Lauren Jonik: As a marine biologist, you’ve spent the past 9 months living on The Conflict Islands in Papua New Guinea and focusing on turtle conservation. How did your position come about?
Natalie Robson: The owner of the Conflict Islands, Ian Gowrie-Smith, has always been conservation minded. When P&O Cruises first began visiting the Conflict Islands in July 2016, Ian decided that he needed to ensure the protection of the turtles and their nests during the cruise ship visits. During these visits roughly 1000 tourists come ashore at the Conflict Islands for one day.
I was emailed the advertisement for a 6 month volunteer position to set up turtle conservation at the Conflict Islands. I was hesitant to volunteer for 6 months, as I already had a paying job in Australia. But I applied anyway, just to keep my options open. Ian called me that night and offered me a paid position, with all expenses covered. I thought it was too good to be true!
Since then I have set up a turtle hatchery on the island, where we relocated eggs from other islands around the atoll. The turtle nursery was constructed in February this year. We are now registering as a NGO and are starting a volunteer program in November to tag the nesting female turtles.
LJ: What does your job entail on a daily basis?
NR: Usually, I start the day in the Turtle Nursery, feeding the turtles and making sure the water is clean. I have now trained a couple of local staff members to help me in the Nursery. In the afternoon I work in the office, organizing the volunteer program, doing paperwork and ordering the equipment and supplies we need for the nursery and volunteer program. From November to February I conduct nightly patrols of the islands for turtles, collect the eggs and bring them back to our turtle hatchery.
LJ: What is the focus of your research?
NR: Conservation is our main focus at the moment. Once we have the program and funding set up, we hope to be able to do more research.
This nesting season we will be conducting population studies, tagging the nesting females to gain an understanding of the number of turtles coming up to nest each season, which islands they prefer and the ratio of green to hawksbill turtles.
I’m also very interested in satellite tracking as my university thesis was on the use of particle tracking to determine optimal release dates and locations for rehabilitated neonate turtles. We are hoping to get some satellite tags by the end of this year. We are using money from donations and our Go Fund Me page to fund the tags.
LJ: What are the most common threats to turtles and other native species? How do you combat poaching?
NR: There are a lot of threats that are negatively impacting turtle populations around the world. Here at The Conflicts the main threat is the hunting of turtles and the taking of their eggs. We are currently trying to combat this by conducting regular patrols of the islands during the nesting season as well as conducting community education about conservation with the neighboring island groups. We will also be hiring staff from the Deboyne Island group to assist with our turtle conservation work.
Other threats facing turtles include plastic pollution. It is very common for turtles to ingest plastics while they are feeding. Turtles love eating jellyfish, which look just like a plastic bag floating in the ocean!
Light pollution is also a big concern around a lot of nesting grounds (fortunately not here). Sea turtle hatchlings follow the light from the moon to find their way down to the water, when there is a lot of artificial light near the shoreline the hatchlings can get disorientated and head into towns instead of out into the ocean! The females coming up to nest can also be put off by excessive light.
LJ: Does climate change play a role in the stability of the ecosystem in The Conflict Islands? How can we best protect vulnerable species?
NR: Climate change could have a big impact in the stability of the ecosystem here on The Conflicts.
Sea turtles undergo temperature sex-determination. The temperature of the sand determines whether they will be male or female. The pivotal temperature is 29⁰Celsius (84.2 degrees Fahrenheit), with nests becoming primarily female in warmer sand and males in cooler sand. With global warming the sand temperatures are continuing to increase, creating very skewed sex ratios.
The Conflict Islands are also surrounded by coral reefs, which are relied upon by the majority of species in the area. Coral bleaching is a big concern of ours. So far, we have been lucky enough to escape the mass bleaching event that occurred worldwide in 2015 and 2016. This is due to the very deep water surrounding the islands, creating upwelling of cooler water onto the reefs. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time before we start to experience coral bleaching out here too. This will have a big impact on the people who rely on these coral reef systems for food and income.
LJ: How did the Conflict Islands get their name?
NR: The Conflicts are named after the boat the “discovered” them—The HMS Conflict. The name has nothing to do with any actual conflicts; it is a very peaceful place!
LJ: What is your educational and professional background like?
NR: I studied Marine Science at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth. I then completed my honors thesis: “Use of Particle Tracking to Determine Optimal Release Dates and Locations for Rehabilitated Neonate Turtles.” This paper was recently published in the international journal Frontiers.
During university and in the years after, I volunteered for 3 seasons of turtle tagging in northwest Australia as well as participating in various volunteer internships around the world, including in South Africa and Belize. I then got a job working in Tourism in northern Western Australia before moving back to Perth to work as a divemaster at the aquarium (AQWA). I was working there when I applied for the position here in Papua New Guinea.
LJ: What are the most challenging aspects about living in a remote part of the world? Are there any comforts you miss? And, what do you find most rewarding?
NR: The remoteness of the Conflict Islands can be challenging. It does get boring and lonely at times. However, I am usually kept pretty busy! We have a wonderful group of staff out at the islands, which makes it feel less isolated and remote. I do sometimes miss the comfort of being able to pop down to shops to pick up some food or even get take away! It takes us 12 hours to get into the nearest town, so we always have to plan ahead. Good chocolate is also hard to come by in Alotau!
LJ: You have worked as a divemaster. For someone who has never dived, can you describe what it feels like to be deep under water? What has been the most exciting, interesting or unusual thing that’s happened to you on a dive?
NR: For me diving is a very relaxing experience. You have to focus on your breathing (kind of like yoga or meditation). There is also a feeling of weightlessness (when you get your buoyancy right), I think it feels like flying!
The most exciting dive I have had would be in South Africa, when we jumped straight into a feeding frenzy of 2.5m reef sharks. They were so graceful in the water and not at all interested in us!
LJ: It’s often posed a fun trivia question at parties to ask what are the top 3 albums, the top 3 books and the top 3 movies you would bring if you were living on a desert island. What are your top choices?
NR: Top 3 albums: Disney mix (for when I need a pick me up), Santana (reminds me of road trips with my family), Ed Sheeran (Because who doesn’t love Ed?).
Top 3 books: I grew up with Harry Potter, so I can re-read those books a hundred times and still love them, John Marsden- Tomorrow When the War Began series was another favorite of mine growing up and My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.
Top 3 movies: Love Actually (I watch this every Christmas), Jurassic Park Series and Finding Nemo
LJ: How can people learn more about turtle conservation?
Seaturtle.org has a lot of great information about turtles and they have tracking data of turtles that have been satellite tagged.
Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in 12th Street, The Manifest-Station, Two Cities Review, Amendo, The Establishment, Bustle, Calliope and Ravishly. When she is not co-editing TheRefresh.co, she is working towards her Master’s degree in Media Management at The New School. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenjonik.