Love at First Sight

Reflections on a Love Affair By Guest Lecturer Tim Harvey

I really like being in wild places. I don’t like towns and cities very much.

Remote locations, whether mountains, deserts, forests or ocean have an almost primal attraction for me. And I think a lot of people feel the same. You only have to look at many of Australia’s popular travel destinations to realise that: the Great Barrier Reef, the Kimberley, the Daintree rainforest, Uluru…

To a large extent, as we modern humans have become more urbanised and numerous, we’ve lost this connection, and I think that we need to re-engage if we are to protect what’s left of the many places we visit.

For me the attraction is a tactile one. I know this sounds strange, but I’ll stroke the water, or the bark of a tree, or sit on a beach in the evening by myself and just focus on what’s immediately around me. I can’t describe it in words because it’s not an intellectual connection; it’s an emotional one.

And it’s this emotional dimension that created my relationship with the Great Barrier Reef. It triggered my fascination with sea turtles.


I’ve been passionate about sea turtles since I returned to Australia from the UK 20 years ago. I knew nothing about them before, but when I came to the Reef and saw them, that was it; ‘Love at first sight’.

They’re incredibly gentle creatures. They’re beautiful to watch underwater. They don’t swim; they fly or glide. And they never seem in a hurry: possibly because very few creatures prey on them. But on land they’re like a bag of cement moving slowly up the beach. Without the buoyancy of water their size and shape makes movement a challenge. You wonder how evolution created such a contrast for survival. And yet, sea turtles have been amazingly successful.

Sea turtles are a good connection between 2 different worlds: the marine and land worlds. They’re air-breathing reptiles that spend most of their lives in the ocean. But they come on land to nest. They’re a reminder to us that life started in the ocean millions of years ago.

To see a turtle come out of the water, move up the beach, nest and then go back in the water is almost a primeval experience. You look at it and think, ‘I’m watching something that’s been happening for 120 million years’. And the fossil record shows that, apart from size, sea turtles have changed very little over that time: an indication of a highly successful body shape and function, and adaptability.

I think there’s a tendency among a lot of people to view nature as something distinct from humans. We ‘look at’ nature rather than understand that we’re actually part of that natural interconnected web. It’s a kind of unconscious arrogance. Humans are amazingly creative and adaptable, but in terms of the planet’s existence we are merely another animal, and compared to sea turtles we are just a blip in time. We have not been around for very long and we need the rest of the natural web if we are to survive.

So I think it’s important that people re-engage with that web.

I can read facts about sea turtles in books and the Internet. I can watch them on TV and in half an hour see the complete breeding cycle. But it’s at a distance; it’s second hand. When you’re on a beautiful tropical beach at night, under the stars, sitting next to a nesting sea turtle there’s an instant emotional connection; it’s nothing to do with facts and information.

Most sea turtle populations around the world are declining; in some places dramatically. On the Great Barrier Reef the numbers appear to be stable but the population is only a fraction of what it was. Within Australian waters they are protected but because sea turtles make long breeding migrations, what you see swimming and feeding on the Reef may actually nest on a beach thousands of kilometres away in less protected waters.

So I think that emotional connection is important, especially these days when we’re desperately trying to prevent sea turtle populations from crashing. We protect what we care about.

Facts alone won’t work. Emotion is what fires people up. It’s what creates commitment. Without it we’ll not succeed.

Tim Harvey is a co-founder of The Sea Turtle Foundation, an Australian NGO, and was manager of Heron Island Research Station. Heron Island is one of the major sea turtle nesting sites on the Great Barrier Reef. He now works as a presenter and tour guide with the privilege of explaining the wonders of this amazing planet we live on. He suffers from curiosity.