Turtle bites woman!

SESL Australia
A red raw wound on a thigh

A turtle bite does really hurt!

Michelle Murphy, SESL Australia’s Analytical Results Coordinator, vacationed recently in Vanuatu, and has the scars to prove it.

And so I’m back. Back to Australia and back to work after a wonderful stay in Vanuatu.

Vanuatu is one of the most fertile regions in the Pacific. The soil is derived from volcanic ash and coral limestone, making it rich in nutrients. Combined with regular rainfall it means virtually anything can grow there.

Ninety per cent of the people in Vanuatu still practise subsistence farming, with locally sourced food providing residents with everything they need. The soil also provides good grazing fodder for Vanuatu’s cattle, one of the nation’s main exports; the beef is said to be some of the best in the world. In recent years, industrial farming has taken off, taking advantage of the excellent growing conditions to raise cash crops such as copra and cocoa.

Tropical vegetables in woven baskets on a beach

Hopefully with this new industry the people of Vanuatu will continue to maintain their ancient methods of sustainable farming practices and land management. But I digress.

We were here to explore, and my girls were keen to visit the Turtle Sanctuary to hand-feed and swim with the sea turtles in a pool by the sea, home to fish, reef sharks and three mature sea turtles. You can hand-feed them papaya and they practically climb out of the pool to be fed.

Now, I have swum with reef sharks before and they are not dangerous. In fact, they show little interest in humans, so I wasn’t concerned about them at all. And you would think turtles would be even less of a concern, but there was one in the pool, a lighter-coloured female about 70 years old, and she liked to sneak up and bite swimmers!

Nobody thought to warn me of this at the time, so it was with blissful ignorance and the anticipation of a unique and special encounter with these beautiful creatures that I not only entered the water for a swim, but took my two young girls in with me.

Sea turtles can bite. They have sharp beaks and extremely strong jaws. A sea turtle bite is unlikely (or so I believed), but it can really hurt! It can also cause a serious bruise or break the skin, or even break bones.

So it was while feeding a turtle a piece of papaya, being careful that it did not get my fingers, that I felt something clamp down on my thigh and hold on with a vice-like grip!

OMG! I’ve been bitten by a shark!

But no. Remaining calm, so as not to alarm the girls, I glanced down in the water to see the old grandma turtle with her beak firmly clamped to my upper thigh and not looking like she would let go any time soon. While my ordeal seemed to last forever, it was actually only a few moments. And no one even noticed!

Grandma did let go, so grabbing the girls, still oblivious, I beat a hasty retreat from the pool to inspect the damage: two big bleeding puncture marks about 15 cm apart with the skin between scraped raw.

Close-up of a green sea turtle in the water

Turtles can bite.

Much later, I thought, “Turtles carry Salmonella, don’t they?”

Salmonella is a bacterium that causes illness in humans when transmitted through foods contaminated with faeces. It’s often found on fruits and vegetables, originating in the growing or irrigation media. And it’s also carried by turtles.

A few days later I did get symptoms of salmonellosis, but I don’t think it was the turtle.