Why sea turtles need rehab [and how we can all make life easier for them]

Beyond attracting thousands of people daily to observe the marine life of the cold Atlantic Ocean and the colourful species of the warm Indian Ocean, the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town hosts a rehabilitation centre dedicated to endangered sea turtles.

Clownfish school together. A honeycomb moray eel opens its jaws in a rhythm as if it is play-backing a song. A ragged tooth shark swims by showing its plentiful teeth. Fluorescent-looking jellyfish float as if weightless in space. As we enter a tunnel made of glass, a ray graciously flaps its fins above us, and a turtle appears in the distance. This very turtle we are looking at has been saved from a horrible death thanks to the rehabilitation program of the Two Oceans Aquarium, started back in 2009. Involved as a volunteer for many years, the young and passionate Talitha Noble heads the programme today.

To this day, more than 315 turtles have been successfully rehabilitated and released. Talitha has built a special connection with many of them, especially the turtles that have undergone a long-term rehabilitation: “I’d like you to meet Sandy!”, she enthusiastically exclaims. We arrive at the edge of the exhibit tank in which many species cohabitate for the greatest pleasure of the visitors. Talitha goes down a few steps, kneels, and moves her hand in the water. The surface breaks when a curious turtle swims towards Talitha who is soon stroking her head, neck and shell.

“Sandy was found on the sand on a beach of the Western Cape by a conservationist from the Lower Breede River Conservancy Trust about a year and a half ago. She appeared more dead than alive and was in a terrible state with five large gashes in her shell and flies all around.”

As we observe Sandy, a nasty white wound is clearly visible on her carapace (top shell). “We assumed that the wounds were caused by the blades of a boat propeller. The cuts were so deep that the lung tissues could be seen moving with every breath the poor animal took.” Talitha describes. As I was wondering about the sensations turtles could feel in their shells, she answers my unspoken question while caressing the turtle that seems to enjoy the interaction very much: “Unlike often assumed the shell of a turtle is very sensitive and the wounds must have been terribly painful. All the more so that they were full of sand and other debris as she had spent a long time on the beach before being noticed. Hence the name: Sandy!” As soon as Sandy arrived at the Two Oceans Aquarium, she had to be put in quarantine and her wounds needed to be cleaned daily for months. Bit by bit the injuries started to heal and the carapace started to grow back very slowly. Today the wound looks a lot smaller than on the pictures Talitha is showing us. Sandy can now swim in the large exhibit tank with other marine life where she can be admired by the crowds and in which she is getting used to her natural habitat. Sandy will be released back into the ocean once her wounds are fully healed.

As we continue talking another turtle pops its head above the surface. “Hi Bob!” Talitha enthusiastically greets the slightly smaller green turtle. Bob was found washed up on the beaches of De Hoop Nature Reserve. Weak turtles drifting south with the mighty Aghulas sea current are often found along this coast. Dehydrated, and with a fractured plastron (or bottom shell) he was in a very bad shape. Bob received all the intensive care needed and seemed to do a little better but he would not eat. Suddenly though, he lost his eye sight, and appeared to have developed an infection of the wound that caused an inflammation of his brain. Bob had to stay out of the water for weeks so that the wounds could heal and had to be fed with a tube and then held in an upright position for at least 30 minutes after each feeding to prevent regurgitation. Along with that he needed a lot of water to stay hydrated. At a later stage and back into the water Bob started to finally gain some weight again and then pooped out an awful lot of plastic debris. Talitha silently takes out a few pictures with the remains of plastic bags and pieces of balloons with the strings still attached… “That’s what was inside him” she states. “Bob has slowly regained part of its sight back but still has a long way to go before it can survive on his own in the ocean.”

“Unfortunately help came too late for this hatchling.” Thalitha flips through the pictures of a dead baby turtle. Next to it, a plastic mess that was found all clogged in its digestive system…

Dangers are many:

  • Plastics of course, with micro-plastics, balloons and plastic bags easily mistaken for yummy jellyfish by turtles.
  • Trawl fishing (lowering a large net to the seabed and dragging it along) is widely used to catch shrimps, and for every kilogram of wild prawns caught, four and a half of other species such as turtle are killed.
  • Ghost fishing, when a lost or abandoned fishing net, trap, pot, line… still kills. More than half a million tonnes is left in the ocean each year! Of course, a forbidden practice in South Africa and international waters.
  • Longline fishing where up to 100-kilometre long horizontal fishing lines are connected to thousands of vertical fishing lines with up to 10,000 baited hooks to catch as many fish as possible… Every day, there are about 3.8 million longline hooks set in the water, worldwide.
  • Boat propellers striking turtles when they surface to breath.
  • Climate change with rising temperatures leading to female-only hatchlings.
  • Beach nesting sites reduce dramatically because of human activity and developments.

Bob is playing with one of the enrichment toys that has been designed for him and Sandy is eagerly nibbling on some veggies that have been put in the water. They are still young turtles that will be released into the ocean where they belong. It will take the time needed before they are ready. In December 2016, Yoshi, a loggerhead turtle was released after 20 years, gaining some 180 kilograms and a lot of strength in the process! Catching one of the currents, just like Bob and Sandy will hopefully soon do, Yoshi is travelling for thousands of kilometres to feeding and mating grounds and back to nesting grounds thanks to her magnetic navigation that keeps scientists puzzled.

With South Africa having one of the earliest sea turtle conservation programmes, and initiatives such as the rehabilitation centre of the Two Oceans Aquarium, hopefully these prehistoric animals can find a bit of relief. However, South Africa represents a tiny part of the nesting grounds, and human activity has impacted turtles so much that they are endangered. One of the missions of the Two Oceans Aquarium is to educate the public about the dangers they face and what we can all do to limit them, such as:

  • saying no to single-use plastics and

  • choosing our seafood responsibly

Claire & Marcella

Notes:

  • You can act easily: just say NO to plastics! Think of all the single-used plastics you use, and try to find an alternative (bottles, bags, straws…).
  • There is a more sustainable fishing solution just like adding a TED [Turtle Excluder Device] to the trawl fishing net that would save most of these animals, or using circle hooks instead or regular J-shaped hooks on longline fishing methods. To support the fishermen respecting the environment better, you can choose the SASSI green listed seafood when buying or ordering food in South Africa. Just ask your waiter and check the list.

Travel tips:

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