27 October 2011

Rescued sea turtles return home

Renee Leeuwner
Photo courtesy jannemei

On 31 October 2011, three sea turtles from the Two Oceans Aquarium will be flown to Durban, courtesy of the Aquarium’s animal carrier, 1Time Airline. Once in Durban, uShaka Marine World will release the turtles back into the ocean. 

The sea turtles were rehabilitated after they were found stranded on Western Cape beaches.  Every year, concerned members of the public bring a number of stranded sea turtles to the Aquarium. Once they have been rehabilitated and nursed back to health, the turtles are sent to Durban, where they are released into warm waters.

Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles and are found only in the warm oceans of the world. The stranded turtles were probably swept down from the East Coast of South Africa by the Agulhas Current and then washed ashore by stormy seas. When they arrive at the Aquarium, they are suffering from dehydration and are very weak from exposure to the cold waters off our coast.

The turtles set for release are three different species of turtle: a hawksbill, a green and a loggerhead

The hawksbill turtle was found on Strandfontein Beach on 3 May 2011. It was severely dehydrated and showed signs of infection. After a week of tube-feeding, the turtle started passing plastic in its faeces. X-rays were taken and fortunately they did not show any obstruction in the turtle’s gut. Sea turtles often ingest plastic as they mistake it for food. The plastic accumulates in their gut, where it causes obstructions and a sense of “being full”, and therefore eliminates the need to eat: the turtle literally starves to death.

The green turtle was found stranded on an Arniston beach and taken to the SPCA in Bredasdorp. It was then couriered to the Aquarium on 7 January 2011. This turtle also showed signs of an infection and was severely dehydrated.  Over a number of days it was rehydrated and its body temperature slowly brought back to normal. It was also treated with antibiotics and tube-fed.

The loggerhead turtle was brought to the Aquarium in May 2010 as a hatchling. It was rehabilitated and spent some time on display in the Aquarium’s Indian Ocean Gallery. When it arrived at the Aquarium, the turtle weighed a mere 118g and was only 8.5cm long. In the time it has been at the Aquarium, the turtle has grown to over 30cm in length and just over 3kg in weight.

“We encourage people to bring stranded turtles to the Aquarium, where we can rehabilitate them and release them once they are strong enough,” says Two Oceans Aquarium Communications and Sustainability Manager Helen Lockhart.

Sea turtles are living dinosaurs, having survived some 90-million years, yet all seven species of sea turtle are threatened with extinction. This is largely due to various human activities and the loss of nesting habitats.

Increased human presence on beaches, particularly at night, disrupts nesting females, who may be forced to use less suitable sites or abort egg laying completely. Recreational activities on beaches along with umbrellas, deck chairs, small boats and 4x4 vehicles damage potential nesting sites and even destroy existing nests. Poaching ranks as another major threat. Nests are raided for the eggs, which provide food for the local people.

Other threats include artificial lighting from buildings and street lights, which disorient hatchlings; the building of sea walls and jetties; beach erosion; beach cleaning; commercial fishing (turtles are accidentally caught up in gill nets); and oil and gas exploration.

Kevin Spiby, the aquarist who runs the turtle rehabilitation programme at the Aquarium, says: “It is really important that we try to rehabilitate every stranded sea turtle. Each turtle that we can return to health, and the sea, is another individual that can contribute to the survival of the species.”

Read more about what to do if you come across a stranded turtle.


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