There’s a new turtle at the Two Oceans Aquarium and her (or his)* name is Sandy. Sandy is a rescue turtle that is currently undergoing rehabilitation here at the Aquarium. She has made a remarkable recovery against the odds, and we hope that, now that she is out of quarantine and in the more-spacious and natural environment of the I&J Ocean Exhibit, she will quickly build her strength and her recovery will speed up.
*Sandy is a sub-adult green sea turtle, so we don’t know what sex s/he is … yet. We’re going with “she” for now.
When you visit Sandy, you’ll notice some very painful-looking gashes on her carapace (shell). We don’t know for sure how these injuries occurred, but judging by the size and shape of the gashes, our guess is that boat propellers struck her. “Turtles often swim up and sleep or chill on the surface of the water,” says Two Oceans Aquarium Senior Aquarist Kevin Spiby. “Sandy could easily have been caught unawares like that. And yes, it was definitely very painful for her.”
The top of a sea turtle shell is called the carapace, while the belly-side is called the plastron.
Back in September 2016, Sarah Halse, conservator of the Lower Breede River Conservancy Trust near Witsand, found Sandy in a terrible condition. “The turtle had five big gashes through her carapace – these were really nasty injuries, as I could see her lung tissue moving up and down inside where the gashes were,” she says.
Turtle shells are very sensitive and they can feel when you scratch them.
The team members at the Lower Breede River Conservancy Trust are often the first line of assistance for animals in need, and as such they regularly rescue ocean animals like penguins and turtles that are found incapacitated along the beach or near the mouth of the estuary. They then take these animals to where they are best cared for – penguins go to The African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary (APSS), for example, and turtles come to the Two Oceans Aquarium’s turtle rescue and rehabilitation facility.
A member of the public phoned us to say that they could see a turtle on the beach from their house,” Sarah continues. “So I took a walk down there – it was quite sad because a bunch of people had walked past without doing anything – and I saw this turtle, half-buried in the sand. She looked dead to me, there were flies all around her, but then I knelt down and moved my hand over her face and her eyeball moved … And I thought, ‘Right, this is it, let’s do this.
I phoned the Two Oceans Aquarium immediately and they told me what to do. I asked some fishermen on the beach to help me carry the turtle – I thought it must weigh at least 150kg but in the end she turned out to weight only 33kg! – and then Sandy and I popped into my little Yaris and we drove straight to the Aquarium.
It was quite an ordeal having to negotiate the roads with this animal on the back seat. The turtle kept moving and making hissing noises – probably as a defense mechanism.”
The Two Oceans Aquarium is a primary care centre for turtles in need. As the winter months approach, the incidence of turtle strandings increases with juvenile turtles (mainly loggerheads) getting swept down from the northern coast of KwaZulu-Natal (where they hatch) in the mighty Agulhas Current and washed ashore by stormy seas.
We’ve also received a good share of sub-adult and adult turtles, including Bob the green turtle – who underwent biopsies, CT scans, tube feeding and more before eventually pooping out a pile of balloons and plastic, and who now bobs away in the I&J Ocean Exhibit – and Otto the big, big hawksbill – who was successfully rehabilitated, tagged and then released in December 2015.
“I was very impressed with the Two Oceans Aquarium,” Sarah says. “When I got there, Maryke [Musson, Two Oceans Aquarium Curator] was there to help me clean the turtle’s wounds. It’s been so awesome to see the change in Sandy. The gashes are still there but they are much smaller, and it has been a remarkable recovery.”
The Aquarium has built up a turtle team who carefully rehabilitates and nurtures rescued turtles, big and small, until they are in good enough condition to be released once more. This is super-specialist care and very time intensive, but the rewards are immense.
In Sandy’s case, rehabilitation meant daily, painstaking cleaning of her wounds, picking out beach sand and other debris from under her severely damaged carapace and then carefully disinfecting the wounds and monitoring her health.
“She spent quite a lot of time on the beach before being picked up by Sarah … and that’s why her name is Sandy,” says Talitha Nobel, our turtle rehab facility coordinator. “Because she was on the beach for so long, when she came in she had so much sand and debris in all the little crevices and cracks, and that took weeks of daily cleaning. She spent a couple of months in quarantine and then she was moved outside to a holding tank on the roof, where she stayed until this week.”
Sandy’s carapace is slowly, very slowly, growing back. “We hope the entire thing will grow back,” says Kevin, “but looking at the rate of growth now it will probably take a very long time before Sandy is completely healed.”
Now that Sandy’s in the I&J Ocean Exhibit, the work continues. Our turtle team will move her to and from the clinic every day, where her wounds will be thoroughly cleaned. Sandy also receives her own enrichment food – she’s mostly vegetarian – and our expert team is keeping an eye on her adjustment to being around other turtles and fish. They also make sure she is surfacing regularly and showing no signs of distress.
“As long as her immune system is strong and she’s not stressed, and the more natural her environment is, the quicker she’s going to heal,” says Kevin. “But we’ll still have to bring her in and do treatments every day and prevent any secondary infections from occurring, and we’ll have to keep a close eye on her to make sure that nothing else picks at the wounds and causes damage.”
Talitha is also chuffed with Sandy’s response to treatments. “Sandy is very adventurous,” she says. “She’ll try anything! She likes to eat all sorts of different things. And she’s a fast learner. She’s very enthusiastic with her target training and her laps to find the target. Such a cutie.”
Nothing beats the feeling of seeing an animal make a recovery like this. We at the Two Oceans Aquarium consider it a privilege and an honour to be in a position to help in any way we can. We’d like to acknowledge the essential role played by conservation organisations like Lower Breede River Conservancy Trust, vigilant members of the public and the volunteers who assist us. Without them, we would not be able to help as many turtles as we do.
Come and visit Sandy and keep an eye on her progress. We can’t wait to sea you.
You can help us help turtles
Our turtle rescue, rehab and release work depends on round-the-clock work by a dedicated team of staff members. We rehabilitate and release hundreds of turtles every year. If you would like to support our work, please consider making a donation online. Every bit helps.