It takes 19 hours by boat to get to Raine Island on the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef. But, when you get there, it only takes thirty minutes to walk from one side of the island to the other.
As Peter Wallis, a representative of the Traditional Owners of Raine knows better than most, it is not the size of the island that matters.
“My Grandmothers and Grandfathers, and many before them, used to go to this place, and for us, growing up in this modern world, it is pretty hard to get back to our history, so Raine Island is very important to us,” he said.
The island, located 620 kilometres North-West of Cairns, supports the world’s most significant green turtle breeding site, and is the most important seabird rookery in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
However, changes in the island’s landscape have caused nests to flood and adult turtles to become trapped and overturned, leading to a declining green turtle population.
As a result, a collaborative, five-year recovery project was launched between BHP, the Queensland Government, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and the Wuthathi and Kemer Kemer Meriam Nation Traditional Owners. The project aims to protect and restore Raine Island’s critical habitat to ensure the future of key marine species, including green turtles and seabirds.
Involving Traditional Owners helps achieve the dual outcomes of delivering on the project’s objectives while building capacity of Indigenous rangers.
“By being directly involved in the project and travelling to the island with the scientists, it gives our people a better understanding of how to best look after the island through science,” Peter said.
The Traditional Owners hold six of fourteen seats on the Island’s reference group, and play a significant role in the scientific research and monitoring of Raine Island.
Peter Wallis, and fellow Traditional Owner Jimmy Passi, travel to the island regularly to represent their people and support the teams carrying out sand testing, sand movement, turtle monitoring and satellite tracking.
Jimmy Passi has been to Raine Island nearly 40 times. “I grew up with land and sea back home, so it feels natural to visit here, but then we also use all the technology here so it is an awesome experience,” he said.
Both men instruct new teams through the turtle monitoring process and lead a lot of the special fencing, which has been used to prevent turtle deaths on the island.
In the 2017-18 nesting season alone, their efforts helped save 251 turtles.
According to Peter Wallis, “As an Indigenous nation, our involvement helps us learn from the scientists but it is good for them too, to learn from the Traditional Owners.
“I think they get a better understanding of our respect for the country and that we are all the same. There is no black or white, it is just about respect for the land and respect for others, which is how we have been brought up,” Peter said.
Both men see their involvement as following the family tradition of looking after their part of the country.
The Wallis family have been part of his Nation’s Board for as long as Peter can remember, and so when he became old enough, he realised that after his mum and dad pass, he would be the next generation charged with the responsibility of looking after the land.
“So I pretty much took it upon myself to try and get involved as much as I can with this sort of work,” he said.
“I can't explain the importance of it, growing up as a kid you want to be like your Elders.”
Jimmy Passi agreed.
“I don't think there is any pressure because for us, it is like going home,” he said.
“Don't get me wrong, representing my people is really big because it can help keep our history alive.”
“I really enjoy it and when I go home and tell my stories about the work and the island, it is having the effect of making other people in my community, younger ones, want to get involved too.”