Visitors to the Two Oceans Aquarium might be surprised to see a newcomer to the big tropical fish display near our entrance - Phiko the loggerhead turtle has joined the wrasses, angelfish and the comet in the exotic Skretting Diversity Gallery.
Phiko has grown too big for the tropical fish display and has been moved to a bigger tank in the Turtle Rehab Centre in anticipation of his release. Phiko is no longer on public diplay.
Time to get to know this little newcomer a bit more - and learn why he has made a stopover in this exhibit on his journey back to the ocean.
Little Phiko weighed just 88g and was only about 6cm long when he got here, but he loved his new home and quickly cottoned on to the concept of regular food!
However, we started to notice that he wasn’t using his back-right flipper to swim. A few weeks later, this situation worsened with him not using either his back-right or his front-left flipper. This was worrying because a progressive injury like this could mean that there was nerve or brain damage involved.
So we arranged an MRI for little Phiko through the exotic vet and good friend of the Aquarium, Dr Bernice Van Huysteen. We had to make a little stretcher for Phiko so that he would stay still during the scan. It was weird to see such a tiny animal in such a huge machine - ag shampies!
Unfortunately, due to his small size, we weren’t able to gain any valuable insights from these scans, so we needed to wait until Phiko was bigger. In the meantime, we decided to get a bit creative with his rehabilitation.
As with us humans, when a limb isn’t being used it loses muscle mass and strength. So we wanted to make sure this didn’t happen with our little dino patient. We started massaging his unused flippers regularly, slowly rotating them and keeping them supple. We also tried other forms of physiotherapy; walking on sand, strapping of strong flippers so that the weak ones were being used and even acupuncture.
When Phiko was about 1kg, we took him for MRI scans again and this time we were able to see that there was some compression damage of the spinal cord near the base of his neck vertebrae. We felt confident that this could stabilise and he could recover with time.
We found that the most effective rehab was swimming, lots and lots of diving and swimming around the tank. So we moved him to the biggest tank we had available and allowed him to spend his days cruising around, eating food and catching sun-rays.
Phiko has improved astoundingly. He is capable of using all of his flippers, though he still prefers his strong ones. In order to help him improve further, we have temporarily decided to put Phiko into the tropical tank in the Skretting Diversity Gallery. This provides him with extra space, depth and enrichment. We prepared him for this by target training him to feed inside a basket, this means that he can eat without being harassed by other fish, it also means that we can call him to us without any stress if we need to remove him from the tank.
It has been lovely to see Phiko adapt to his new temporary home so quickly. This not-so-little-anymore turtle has proven himself incredibly resilient and strong in his one year of life thus far and we are hopeful/excited to see him heading towards release eligibility.
Phiko will be on display in the Skretting Diversity Gallery for the near future, and visitors are welcome to come say "hi" and take as many photos as possible with this beautiful little turtle (we've been told he likes to wiggle his bum at the camera when he's feeling shy).
Please keep in mind that Phiko is a temporary resident of the tropical display. He is undergoing rehabilitation and is a candidate for release as soon as he has recovered to a point where veterinary staff are satisfied that he has no deficits that will reduce his chances of survival in the wild. For this reason, Phiko may be removed from the exhibit for treatments from time to time (but we will let you know when his big release day comes up).