On World Turtle Day, 23 May 2019, we celebrated by teaming up with SAAMBR and uShaka Sea World to release 106 loggerhead turtle hatchlings that had spent some time rehabilitating at the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation. Thanks to the help from our friends in KwaZulu-Natal, these turtles were released into the warm Agulhas Current, about 10 nautical miles off the coast of Durban.
These 106 hatchlings were the healthiest of the more than 200 that have so far reached the Two Oceans Aquarium's sea turtle rehabilitation centre after being rescued by members of the public on the coast of the Western Cape. After a period of care at the Two Oceans Aquarium, these turtles were flown to uShaka Sea World to undergo the final stages of their rehabilitation before release.
The release operation was carried out with the full material and staff support of uShaka Sea World, with Two Oceans Aquarium Senior Aquarist Kevin Spiby present to assist with the release and confirm the health of the hatchlings.
Although these hatchlings have all been given a second chance, there is still a long journey ahead. With the largest of the group weighing no more the 150g, each hatchling has the potential to grow to more than 3 000 times its current size, and travel thousands of kilometres. Along the way they will again be facing the threats of predators, pollution and climate change - but with the bit of extra strength they have from being allowed to recover at the Two Oceans Aquarium and uShaka Sea World, they have a fighting chance.
Plenty more rescued hatchlings are recovering and awaiting release both at the Two Oceans Aquarium and at uShaka. The Two Oceans Aquarium has received over 200 rescued turtles so far in 2019, and we have rehabilitated 136 of them to the point that we were satisfied with their health, and sent them to uShaka Sea World to undergo the final steps of their recovery and have an early release off the KwaZulu-Natal coast.
The remaining hatchlings at the Two Oceans Aquarium and uShaka Marine World are still undergoing rehabilitation and will be released when their health has improved to the satisfaction of our veterinary teams. Happy healing!
Why are they washing up in such large numbers?
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that in most years thousands of turtle hatchlings perish on the South African coast - in fact, it is estimated that fewer than one or two in a thousand survive to adulthood, and that is not even accounting for human-made hazards like poaching, ghost fishing nets or plastic pollution. The difference this year is that many more vigilant people are keeping their eyes open and helping to rescue these turtles, giving them a second chance.
Loggerhead turtles hatch in the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal, and swim south until they reach the warm waters of the Agulhas Current. If a hatchling is lucky, it will be carried by the Agulhas Current as it turns east off the coast of the Western Cape, and out into the warm Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, this isn't easy for the little hatchlings and many of them are ejected from the Agulhas Current into the cold water of the Atlantic. This water is too cold for these hatchlings to survive and they get gradually weaker and weaker as they try to return to the Agulhas - an effort that is made increasingly difficult in bad weather, or if the turtle has been harmed by ingesting plastic pollution.
It is these weakened hatchlings that inevitably wash up on the Western Cape's coast, and without human intervention, they have no chance of surviving. We have a responsibility to help these animals.
The Two Oceans Aquarium's Turtle Rescue Programme is just one part of a cycle that would not be possible without the support of vigilant members of the public and the ongoing commitment of our incredible Turtle Rescue Network partners. CapeNature, NSRI, Tenikwa Wildlife, SANParks, Nature's Valley Trust, Lower Breede River Conservancy Trust, Plett Stranding Network, Shark Spotters, APSS, South African Shark Conservancy and, of course, the countless other people and organisations that have helped distressed turtles, we thank you all!