On the morning of 26 November 2019, our conservation team assembled for an important mission - returning the rehabilitated sea turtles in our care to their ocean home. Thirty-five turtles in total were released, including Alvi, a green sea turtle whose rescue story went viral after a plastic bag was pulled out of his throat, and 34 hatchlings that were in our care after becoming stranded on the Southern Cape coast during the course of the year.
The turtles' carers, Conservation Coordinator Talitha Noble, Research Coordinator Inge Adams and Senior Aquarist Kevin Spiby, together with plenty of eager staff members met in Hout Bay in the early hours of the morning where they linked up with photographer Jean Tresfon and Hooked On Africa Charters who graciously carried us out to the release location. From here, the turtles were carried several nautical miles beyond Cape Point, where the warmer waters would offer them favourable conditions. From this location, the hatchlings would again be taken up by the Agulhas Current, while Alvi would be in the best possible position to decide on which coast of Africa to follow.
2019 was a bumper year for turtle hatchling rescues, thanks to the success of our volunteer Turtle Rescue Network and the increased vigilance of members of the public. Two hundred and twenty-six loggerhead hatchlings were rescued and brought to the Aquarium this year, and we are very pleased to report that, although many of these hatchlings were in incredibly poor health, we had a successful rehabilitation rate of 85%. Compare this to 2018's 37 rescues and 2017's 38, and you can imagine how packed our rehabilitation facilities were - thanks to SAAMBR and uShaka Sea World for working with us to release many of these turtles earlier this year.
Watching these tiny hatchlings go free into the vastness of the ocean is always a bittersweet moment - we know the journey before them is going to be tough, but we also know that we've given them all the best possible second chance at a life in the wild.
Last, but certainly not least, it was Alvi's turn to return to his ocean home.
Without hesitation, Alvi was off to reexplore the ocean. Despite spending over a year in rehabilitation, Alvi clearly remained undaunted by the open ocean - a reminder of how resilient these animals are.
Only four turtles need to remain in rehabilitation going into 2020 - Bob the green sea turtle in long-term care for neurological damage, Anette the loggerhead who was freed from a ghost net by the NSRI, and two hatchlings that are still not yet strong enough for release.
We look forward to even more rescue, rehabilitation and release success in 2020!
Following Alvi at sea:
Before release, Alvi was fitted with a satellite tag that will enable us and the Department of Environmental Affairs to track his movements at sea for, hopefully, a few years. This tag was attached to Alvi's carapace with epoxy and will fall off over time as Alvi grows.
This data will be incredibly valuable; usually, only sexually mature female turtles return to land to lay eggs, so most tagging programmes are only able to collect data from these turtles as they are the ones most commonly encountered by humans. We strongly suspect that Alvi is a male, but even if Alvi is an immature female it will be interesting to see just how he or she chooses to migrate. In nature, male turtles and turtles of Alvi's young age never approach land and very little is known about their movements - in fact, this period of a turtle's life is referred to as "the lost years".
We'll soon begin posting updates about Alvi's whereabouts, but in the mean time you can follow the journies of or other tagged turtles, Yoshi and Noci.
On 18 November 2018, Alvi was found by a beachgoing family at Struibaai, washed up and weak. With the help of the local NSRI Station, the family was able to make contact with the Aquarium's Turtle Rescue Programme and drove all the way to Cape Town to bring Alvi to us.
It was initially difficult to figure out what was wrong with Alvi, as he had few visible injuries. We did notice that he was having trouble breathing, and an X-ray revealed that something was blocking his oesophagus.
With the help of a local veterinarian, Dr Malan van Zyl, the obstruction was removed and was discovered to be a plastic bag that Alvi had mistaken for seaweed.
Alvi has since been making a slow recovery at the Aquarium, where he has shared much of his time with long-term rehab resident Bob. Alvi seems to be back to his feisty wild self, and we are certain that he'll be able to thrive back in the wild.
The hatchlings' story:
It's a sad reality that the survival odds of sea turtle hatchlings are very low. In fact, it is estimated that fewer than one in 1 000 hatchlings survives to adulthood, and that's not even accounting for human-made hazards such as ghost fishing gear, plastic pollution, poaching and climate change. Because turtles are so endangered and have such low survival odds, we feel it is our duty to give them the best possible chance at surviving to compensate for the harm humans have done.
With the support of a thriving network of volunteers and members of the public on the Southern Cape coast, over 200 hatchlings that became stranded on our shores were brought to the Aquarium for rehabilitation. These hatchlings emerge from their eggs on the northern shores of KwaZulu-Natal and are carried past the Cape by the Agulhas Current. For whatever reason, many of these tiny turtles are ejected from this current and are unable to survive without human intervention.
Help us help turtles
Behind the scenes of the exhibits you have come to know and love, the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa actively rescues, rehabilitates and releases stranded and distressed sea turtles as part of our broader conservation mission. With the support of an extensive network of organisations and volunteers along the Western Cape's coast, and many incredible donors, hundreds of endangered sea turtles – loggerheads, hawksbills, greens – have been saved, reared to full strength and released back into the wild.