Caitlin Smith: The Turtle Whisperer

By Becky

Today we catch up with turtle whisperer Caitlin Smith, and see how she got from being scared of the ocean, to researching and protecting all manner of sea turtles!

Hey! Tell us a bit about yourself!

Hello! I’m Caitlin Smith, I am 23 and I was born in the Philippines, but grew up predominantly in Sydney and Brisbane. I have my BSc (Marine Science) from the University of Queensland, and MSc (Marine Biology and Ecology) from James Cook University. I am affiliated with the Australian Institute of Marine Science researching how climate change is affecting coral and sponge physiology, and microbiomes. I am also affiliated with the Australian National University researching microplastic accumulation on the Great Barrier Reef. At the moment I am running a flatback mark-recapture program in Port Hedland, Western Australia for the second year in a row.

…and when I’m not doing any of that I like to sleep.

That sounds pretty hectic! How did you get to where you are today?

When I was in my final semester of university, I wanted to see if I would like pursuing research. So I went up to my zoology lecturer, and asked if he had any recommendations. He set me up at Mon Repos (Bundaberg) turtle rookery, and I did a research project there looking at quantifying the predation on loggerhead hatchlings on residential beaches. I’d never even seen a turtle before getting there! I’ve been pursuing a research career from that point onwards and have worked with turtles every year since then!

Always in awe of tiny turts!

Always in awe of tiny turts!

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

To be completely honest I was terrified of the ocean for a very long time. When I was 18, I had to pick a major for my science degree and I kind of panicked and picked marine science. It wasn’t until I started learning about the ocean that I gained a real appreciation for marine life, and stopped being afraid of it. I couldn’t imagine being in any other field, so I’m pretty happy with that spontaneous life decision!

What does a day in your life look like?

At the moment, my life is pretty hectic. The beach that I work on gets between 20-50 turtles a night on an 800m stretch of beach. So, from about 8pm onwards I’m on the beach with my team of volunteers tagging flatback turtles and taking tissue biopsies; making sure that our turtle population is nice and healthy.

How do you hope your voice and work will influence others?

Working in a small rural town now, a lot of people aren’t so environmentally friendly, and I hope leading by example, and protecting our turtle population can push people in the right direction to move away from single use plastic and littering. We try and educate the town on how to view turtles safely without disturbing their natural nesting process. I’ve also got the town to limit their light usage around the nesting beach.

It’s a long road ahead for this turtle to reach adulthood.

It’s a long road ahead for this turtle to reach adulthood.

Who or what do you draw your inspiration from?

Dr. Col Limpus, was the first person to take me out to see a turtle. He has been running his turtle research program since the 70’s and still goes out onto the beach every night during the nesting season. He is the world leader in turtle research. I don’t think I’ll ever be quite as successful as him, but I’m going to give it a red hot crack.

Which ocean species is on your bucket list to see?

I think when I finally see a Leatherback turtle, (the size of a mini cooper), I will definitely be sporting an ugly cry face!

What is one thing you wish someone had told you/taught you a long time ago?

It’s ok to fail. Failure means there’s room to grow and gain more knowledge, it makes you a better scientist.

Where do you go from here?

Hopefully the only way is up from here and I will be pursuing a life of turtles, research and sunshine.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I honestly couldn’t be where I am without the love and support of my parents and sisters. They thought I was mad when I first came home and said I was going to study marine science but they stuck with me, and for that I am forever grateful.

Hatchling photo: Becky