Koos Otto was fishing at Yzerfontein on Saturday 7 June 2014 when he stepped on what he thought was a mossy rock. But the rock moved and a mouth opened, and Otto realised he had stepped on a sea creature – a critically endangered hawksbill turtle – stranded on the beach, and in dire need of medical care.
Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) are tropical and while they do visit South African shores, they do not nest here.
Otto contacted the National Sea Rescue Institute and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. In turn, they contacted the Aquarium, which sent a rescue team.
The turtle – which has since been named Otto, after his rescuer and his wife, Sanet – was covered in black mussels, an indication that she had been floating for some time. When the turtle came to the Aquarium’s Turtle Rehabilitation Programme, “she” (there is no certainty on her gender) was very weak, dehydrated and cold, with external scrapes and cuts. Our vet, Dr Georgina Cole, ensured her wounds were cleaned and she was placed on antibiotics, as she may have an infection.
Cole says when Otto arrived at the Aquarium, she was put in water that was slowly heated up to warm her. Last Tuesday she started swimming by herself, and on Thursday she was X-rayed to confirm that she had no internal injuries or blockages.
Otto is as buoyant as a juvenile turtle, and cannot dive to the bottom of her holding pool. The X-rays revealed a significant amount of gas trapped in her gastrointestinal tract, which explains her buoyancy.
Cole says the gas could have accumulated because Otto’s gut shut down after being in cold water for a long time, and she was unable to eat.
Cole is treating Otto with drugs to get her gut moving again, and the team will tube-feed her small quantities of fluid and food. If she passes a stool it will be an indication that her gut has started moving again. If she doesn’t pass a stool, further studies will be done, including giving her a barium meal to see if there is an obstruction.
Cole remains cautiously optimistic that Otto is on the road to recovery: “We don’t know what happened to Otto before she washed up on the rocks, and what happened that led to her washing up on the rocks, but she has been stable since day three.”
Hawksbill turtles eat sponges, jellies and other invertebrates, including the Portuguese man o’ war, dangerous hydrozoans and highly toxic sponges (spongivores).
Cole monitors Otto daily, and blood tests show she is hydrating. Otto weighs 76.7kg and her carapace (shell) is almost 1m long. They live between 30 and 50 years, can grow up to 1m in length and usually weigh up to 80kg, but some can weigh as much as 127kg.
These turtles are hunted for their beautiful shells, which are used in tortoiseshell products, even though they were declared critically endangered in 1996. Today, some protected populations are stable or increasing, but the overall decline of the species, when considered within the context of three generations, has been in excess of 80%.
June, a large green sea turtle that was rescued in June 2013, was released in May. Cole says Otto will also take a long time to rehabilitate.
It is thanks to generous donations from the public that we can continue to do this kind of conservation work. If you would like to help support turtle rehabilation, please donate here.