As the Western Cape enters winter, the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation's Turtle Rescue Programme team are being kept busy by huge numbers of stranded loggerhead turtle hatchlings being rescued on the southern coast, from Plettenberg Bay to Cape Point. More than 200 turtle hatchlings have made their way to our rehabilitation centre, after being rescued by vigilant members of the public, and we are expecting that number to grow significantly as the Cape continues to be hammered by strong winds and swell.
23 May 2019 Update: Excellent World Turtle Day news! Together with uShaka Sea World and SAAMBR, our Aquarists were able to release 106 hatchlings back into the warm waters of the Agulhas Current, 10 nautical miles off the coast of Durban. We'll bring you a more detailed release update soon!
22 May 2019 Update: We're up to 213 rescued hatchlings today! Despite the huge number of turtles that have come in, we've built a great relationship with the team at uShaka Sea World and SAAMBR who are taking a further 84 hatchlings. The hatchlings that we've chosen to send to uShaka are the early arrivals that have had a longer time to recover, and can now prepare for their release in the warmer climate of KwaZulu-Natal. These hatchlings include #1 Nubby, who was the first rescued hatchling to arrive at the Two Oceans Aquarium in 2019 - and has proven to be quite the little fighter, even with half a flipper bitten off.
15 May 2019 Update: Hatchlings #200 and #201 arrived from Tenikwa Wildlife yesterday, so it is truly a full house at the rehabilitation centre! The 50 hatchlings sent to uShaka Sea World have all arrived safely, and we know that the incredible uShaka team are ready to receive more from us as the season progresses. Teamwork makes the dream work!
Our previous record for successful rehabilitation and releases was in 2015, when we were able to save 162 of the 217 hatchlings rescued by members of the public. It seems as though we are going to be surpassing both those numbers by a large margin in 2019!
9 May 2019 Update: We're up to 186 rescued hatchlings! Teamwork makes the dream work, so we have just packed up the first 50 hatchlings that passed through our rehabilitation centre to go to uShaka Sea World/SAAMBR in KwaZulu-Natal, where they will complete their rehabilitation before being released back into the Agulhas Current. These 50 hatchlings have all undergone thorough veterinary examination and have regained much of their strength, and we are confident that the short flight to Durban will be no trouble for the little ones. This also frees up valuable space in our Cape Town rehabilitation centre for more seriously compromised turtles, which we are certainly going to receive as winter gets more severe.
7 May 2019 Update: We've just received our 180th hatchling - and are expecting more this week. Our team is coping well and these hatchlings are all showing their resilience!
Since the rescue of the first stranded hatchling, which came to us on 1 March from Tenikwa Wildlife in Plettenberg Bay, we have had over 127 hatchlings arrive at our rehabilitation centre - and we have been able to save most of them, thanks to the fast response of all parties involved. These are the coastal communities where our rescued hatchlings have come from (based on the Turtle Rescue Network Point they were handed to):
- Struisbaai - 77 hatchings
- Hermanus - 16 hatchlings
- Plettenberg Bay - 10 hatchlings
- Muizenberg - 9 hatchlings
- Gansbaai - 4 hatchlings
- Sedgefield & Witsand- 3 hatchlings each
- Stillbaai - 2 hatchlings
- Gordon's Bay, Fishhoek & Wilderness - 1 hatchling each
Our team gathers vital statistics on all the turtles that arrive in our care, and we'll be providing greater detail on these little ones in our next update - including the incidence of ingested plastic pollution.
Our team attributes the large number of rescues to the growing support and enthusiasm of members of the public living in the Cape's coastal communities, and the efficiency and passion of the wonderful Turtle Rescue Network organisations that we have been lucky enough to work with.
"We're getting a lot of rescues in, largely due to a really efficient Rescue Network that is operating well. I'm also excited by the fact that it seems like a lot of the turtles washing up are actually being rescued, which means that we have our bases covered along the coastline. That's quite a comforting feeling, knowing that people are aware and actively looking. Even though it means more work for us, it's exciting because it means the system is working," said Conservation Coordinator Talitha Noble.
Thanks to improved public education both by initiatives like the Turtle Road Trip and simply by word of mouth from the growing Rescue Network, more people are becoming aware of what they can do to save a turtle.
Volunteer Turtle Rescue Network Coordinator Tracy Whitehead said: "We've met the most amazing people and the Rescue Network has made some incredible contacts. It's just amazing how people have been helping."
While this large number of turtles certainly is putting our incredible team of volunteers and rehabilitation centre staff to the test, we've dealt with large numbers before - in 2015 we were able to rehabilitate and release 162 turtles.
"This has been my first really big stranding season. In my first two years working here, we had far fewer rescues. So it's going to be exciting for me to see how this year goes - there is definitely going to be a lot of learning for all of us!
We're taking it one turtle at a time and trying not to get overwhelmed, but we are working together and that's really important - teamwork makes the dream work," said Turtle Rescue Programme Assistant Inge Adams.
As for the hatchlings that have already been in our care for some time, ongoing observation and veterinary care is key to ensuring their speedy recovery.
Inge: "All of the larger and slightly older hatchlings that we've received are doing really well, and we are happy about them. But it's been a surprise how many really really small ones have come in."
Talitha: "Little #100 stands out to me, when he came in he weighed only about 20g - he's just tiny, really really little. There's also a little turtle missing both its back flippers and also half of each of its front flippers. So, they really are a group of injured little warriors.
Overall, a lot of the turtles have had really good strength; when they've come in they've generally begun diving and eating and swimming actively very quickly. It's been a resilient year."
And have there been any rescue stories that stood out to our team?
"There was a fisherman in Struisbaai who picked up six hatchlings while he was fishing, then went home to fetch his kids and they went back to the shore and, I think, picked up another twelve that afternoon. He was just amazing, he went back that night again at sunset, checked again the next day at sunrise. Incredible", recounted Tracy.
How can you support our rehabilitation efforts?
Cape Town locals are also invited to attend a special screening of Deep Blue \ Middle C on 24 May, a locally produced, genre-bending film was inspired by the west coast of South Africa – a place of profound meaning and impact for filmmaker Bryan Little who, along with a group of his friends, spent 10 days and 10 nights re-connecting with the wild and enigmatic part of South Africa’s coast. All proceeds from this event will go towards the Turtle Rescue Programme of the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation.
Why are they washing up in such large numbers?
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that in most years thousands of turtle hatchlings perish on the South African coast - in fact, it is estimated that fewer than one or two in a thousand survive to adulthood, and that is not even accounting for manmade hazards like poaching, ghost fishing nets or plastic pollution. The difference this year is that that many more vigilant people are keeping their eyes open and helping to rescue these turtles, giving them a second chance.
Loggerhead turtles hatch in the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal, and swim south until they reach the warm waters of the Agulhas Current. If a hatchling is lucky, it will be carried by the Agulhas Current as it turns east off the coast of the Western Cape, and out into the warm Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, this isn't easy for the little hatchlings and many of them are ejected from the Agulhas Current into the cold water of the Atlantic. This water is too cold for these hatchlings to survive and they get gradually weaker and weaker as they try to return to the Agulhas - an effort that is made increasingly difficult in bad weather, or if the turtle has been harmed by ingesting plastic pollution.
It is these weakened hatchlings that inevitably wash up on the Western Cape's coast, and without human intervention, they have no chance of surviving. We have a responsibility to help these animals.
The Two Oceans Aquarium's Turtle Rescue Programme is just one part of a cycle that would not be possible without the support of vigilant members of the public and the ongoing commitment of our incredible Turtle Rescue Network partners. CapeNature, NSRI, Tenikwa Wildlife, SANParks, Nature's Valley Trust, Lower Breede River Conservancy Trust, Plett Stranding Network, Shark Spotters, APSS, South African Shark Conservancy and, of course, the countless other people and organisations that have helped distressed turtles, we thank you all!