Volcanic mountains

Turtle U-turn days before Tonga volcanic eruption captured by satellite imagery

A turtle released after nearly three years of rehabilitation has had another chance to escape – performing a giant U-turn just before January’s volcanic eruption in Tonga.

Tilly, the female green sea turtle, was released and tagged with a special transmitter at Flynn Reef, off Cairns in November, before embarking on a swift eastward journey towards the Pacific Islands.

A citizen tracking map of the Great Barrier Reef shows the tiny turtle traveled 1,867 kilometers in 47 days, but began to turn back towards the Queensland coast days before the eruption on a volcanic island north of the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa on January 15.

Jennie Gilbert of the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, where Tilly spent several years recuperating after becoming trapped in a net with no hope of survival, said the turtle clearly knew something was afoot.

Tilly the turtle made a giant U-turn days before a volcanic eruption in Tonga triggered a tsunami.(Provided: Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef)

“It was basically heading towards Vanuatu or the Solomon Islands in a straight line, then two days before the Tonga volcano, it did a full U-turn,” Ms Gilbert said.

“You hear about these stories, especially with tsunamis, where animals are trying to start moving out of the danger zone.

“I’ve never seen this happen before and I think it’s just amazing.”

A woman releases a turtle from the edge of a boat into the ocean
Tilly the green sea turtle was released at Flynn Reef off Cairns in November.(Provided by: Christian Miller)

Tonga has been reeling from the impact of the underwater volcanic eruption on Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, about 65 kilometers north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, which triggered a tsunami with waves up to 15 meters high.

The eruption and tsunami killed three people, destroyed villages and resorts, and cut communications with the island with a population of around 105,000.

A turtle in a swimming pool
Tilly, the green turtle, spent almost three years being cared for at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.(Provided: Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Center)

Back home

A citizen tracking map of the Great Barrier Reef shows Tilly covered 2,815 kilometers in 69 days with an average speed of 1.69 kilometers per hour.

Ms Gilbert said she currently appeared to be heading home towards Cairns.

“She received a ping on the reef off Cairns and we believe she is returning to Fitzroy Island Rehabilitation Centre,” Ms Gilbert said.

“She has traveled more miles than any other turtle we have ever released – over 2,700 miles.

“Not bad considering she just turned three.”