On the roof of the Two Oceans Aquarium is a sight that few people get to see - a fully fledged sea turtle rehabilitation centre. Here's a behind-the-scenes look:
Unfortunately, the first part of the Aquarium most turtles spend time in is our surgery - a rooftop veterinary clinic outfitted with all the medical equipment and life-support systems needed to examine, treat and look after all of our animals, not just turtles.
One particular piece of equipment that is widely used on turtles here is the digital X-ray machine. Because sea turtles have such slow metabolisms, it is very difficult to diagnose internal injuries to their digestive systems, such as those caused by eating pieces of jagged plastic pollution or disease. By getting the turtle to eat a slightly radioactive compound, we are able to use X-rays to see any blockages or internal gastrointestinal issues they may have.
From this clinic, we also make the decision to escalate a turtle's medical care if we do not have the facilities to help it - such as taking it to a "human hospital" for an MRI scan.
Next to the clinic lies the Aquarium's quarantine room, where small animals can be kept in isolation from the other creatures in our care to heal, or to ensure that they do not carry any pathogens. A special part of this room is dedicated to tiny turtle hatchlings, which each receive their own enclosure, with a fresh flow of ocean water.
While in the quarantine room, rehab centre staff and volunteers monitor the turtles' health and the amount of food they eat daily. During this time, many of the hatchlings are incredibly weak and aren't able to dive underwater, which is not too alarming - at this stage of their life, they would simply be drifting in the ocean currents. But, it is important for them to be monitored while they regain their strength so that there is no chance of them becoming tired and drowning.
When they are back up to full strength and able to swim proficiently they are moved to the outdoors rehabilitation area.
Once they have been cleaned, and wounds treated, these turtles are placed in a "dry dock", kept out of water for several days to avoid the potential of drowning. Yes, sea turtles are absolutely able to survive outside of water - which is one of the main reasons why we advise people finding stranded turtles to rather take the time to transport them to a Rescue Network Point than put them back in the water. While in "dry dock", the turtle will occasionally be submerged in fresh water, allowing them to quickly rehydrate.
When a turtle has regained sufficient strength to once again swim with vigour, we move them to a holding tank in the outside facility.
Outdoor recovery area
The outdoor recovery area is where most of the turtles in our care remain on the final stretch before their release. Here, turtles big and small that have regained enough strength to swim effectively, are eating normally and are generally on a progressive path of recovery can live in larger enclosures while the final phases of their treatment are completed.
Particularly large turtles, or those that need a little more room to exercise, may actually be kept in one of the large holding tanks usually reserved for schools of large fish such as sharks or giant kob.
While in this recovery area, turtles receive the same care from rehabilitation centre staff that they would while in the quarantine room. As these turtles are stronger and larger, efforts are also made to enrich them by providing hiding spots, a stimulating environment, feeding them in ways that allow them to mimic their instinctual foraging or hunting behaviours.
I&J Ocean Exhibit
Although not technically part of the rehabilitation facility, several turtles do get placed inside the large, sub-tropical I&J Ocean Exhibit. Turtles chosen for this are ones that have recovered their full strength and are "out of the woods", but are still recovering from an injury that would significantly lower their chances of survival in the wild. For these turtles, the relatively unstimulating environment of the rehabilitation facility's holding tanks is not a suitable long-term home, and we believe that the I&J Ocean Exhibit provides the best approximation of their natural habitat possible, while still allowing ongoing human observation and medical intervention if needed.
These long-term residents have been few in recent years, but you will likely be familiar with Bob, a green turtle slowly recovering from neurological issues - including partial blindness, and Sandy, another green turtle with a hole in her shell that is healing slowly, but would pose a serious infection risk in the wild.
Bob, Sandy and all the turtles passing through the rehabilitation facility are on a path that will take them back home - to the ocean!