15 July 2010

Warmer waters for Wasabi

Two Oceans Aquarium
A green sea turtle in the wild. Photo courtesy Trodel

A green sea turtle, affectionately known as Wasabi, which was on display in the I&J Predator Exhibit, took to the skies on 14 July, courtesy of 1time airline, the Aquarium’s official airline carrier. She is being relocated to the warmer climes of Durban where she will take up residence at uShaka Marine World.

Wasabi flew first-class – not in the cargo hold, but in the cabin. “We had the hold all ready and set up for her, but we were afraid she’d be uncomfy, so the captain gave us permission to utilise the last rows in the aircraft, to carry her in the cabin rather,” said 1time airline’s Marketing and PR Manager Anya Potgieter.

Wasabi was comfortably packed in a wooden box approximately 1m in width, 1m in length and 50cm deep. She was surrounded by foam to protect her and a few hot water bottles were placed in the box to keep her warm.

“As an air-breathing animal, it was not necessary for her to be transported in water. However, as she is a reptile, it was important that she was kept warm during the trip, which is why we included hot water bottles,” said Aquarium Operations Manager Tinus Beukes.

Due to flight costs, Wasabi was initially going to be transported via road, but 1time airline generously offered its services at the eleventh hour. “We were impressed with how quickly and efficiently the 1time airline team was able to make this happen and how everyone has jumped on board! It is a relief that Wasabi could travel by air rather than road,” said Aquarium Communications and Sustainability Manager Helen Lockhart. 

Potgieter, on behalf of the accommodating airline, had the following to say: “We are really excited about this and wish Wasabi a good journey. We expect her to send us a full report of her trip with 1time. We are ecstatic to be the official airline of the Two Oceans Aquarium and look forward to welcoming creatures from all walks of the ocean in the future.”

Potgieter also acknowledged the work being done by the Two Oceans Aquarium and uShaka Marine World, saying, “Thank you for the incredible work you do. Not only in providing education to our nation about the oceans and its ecology, but for caring enough to make your life exist around your passion and dedication to conservation.”

Wasabi arrives in Durban

Earlier this year, Aquarium staff noticed that Wasabi was using her right flipper less and less, particularly when the temperature in the I&J Predator Exhibit dropped. She was then diagnosed with chronic arthritis in her right flipper which, according to the vet, was probably due to an old injury.

“Turtles live in warm tropical oceans. The cooler water of the I&J Predator Exhibit was obviously having an adverse effect on Wasabi, but because of her weak flipper, release back into the wild is not an option. Fortunately, uShaka agreed to provide her with a permanent home,” said Beukes.

Wasabi was found stranded on Muizenberg Beach by a member of the public in December 2006. She was a long way from home in the warm Indian Ocean, was weak and dehydrated after being exposed to the cold water of False Bay, and her right flipper was injured. Aquarium staff nursed her back to health and she was first displayed in the Oceans of Contrast: Indian Ocean Gallery before moving to the I&J Predator Exhibit in 2008.

Upon arrival at the Aquarium, Wasabi’s carapace was 18.3cm long and 19.1cm wide and she weighed 0.392kg. She was removed from the I&J Predator Exhibit in April this year, weighing in at 36kg with a carapace length of 65cm and width of 54cm. Although Wasabi’s gender is undetermined, it is assumed that she is a female because of her short tail. However, blood tests would be required to confirm this.

Green turtles, as their name implies, are olive-green in colour with a relatively smooth carapace. They have a short snout and their beak is not hooked like that of the loggerhead turtle. Adult green turtles feed mainly on seaweed and seagrass and can often be seen close inshore, basking at the surface.

During breeding season, female green turtles lay up to 150 eggs every 12 days or so, totalling approximately 600 eggs per season. Nesting occurs on the islands off Mozambique and other Indian Ocean islands. On some of these islands, the green turtles have been hunted almost to extinction.

Wasabi, safe and sound at uShaka Marine World

Sea turtles are living dinosaurs, having survived some 90-million years from the age of the reptiles, or Mesozoic Era. All seven species of turtle are threatened with extinction. This is largely due to various human activities. One of the major reasons is the continued loss of nesting habitats. Increased human presence on beaches, particularly at night, disrupts nesting females. They may be forced to use less suitable sites or abort egg-laying completely.

Recreational activities on beaches, along with the use of 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.

The ingestion of litter, particularly plastic, has serious, often lethal, consequences for turtles. All hatchling turtles eat jellyfish and often mistake plastic bags for food. Plastic is not only toxic, but also obstructs the stomach and prevents the turtle from receiving nutrition from its food. The result is a lingering death.

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.

Hatchlings are particularly vulnerable to nature’s predators as they make their way from the nest to the sea. Gulls, mongooses, leguaans, crabs, and even ants attack the baby turtles. Once in the sea, large fish also prey on them.

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