Litchi, a green turtle previously under the care of our team at the Turtle Conservation Centre, has been busy! We have talked about the magic of the De Hoop Marine Protected Area (MPA) and the mystery that it holds regarding how green turtles use this little stretch of ocean. Litchi loves the MPA so much that she is fondly referred to as our "De Hoop turtle".
Talitha Noble, Conservation Manager at the Turtle Conservation Centre, is giving Litchi the limelight...
On 21 February 2021, a 7kg green turtle was rescued from a beach in De Hoop MPA, engulfed in algae and covered by hundreds of leeches. This special turtle, Litchi, underwent just over a year of rehabilitation in the Turtle Conservation Centre before being cleared for release by our vets. In January 2022, Litchi was heading home to the ocean, a little bit plumper and with a shiny satellite tag.
Satellite tags are attached to the turtle’s carapace (top shell). These tags emit signals that are detected at certain time intervals by satellites orbiting the Earth. Locations with varying accuracy can be assigned based on the signals emitted by the tag. Satellite tags can provide GPS coordinates, dive time, depth, swimming speed, and even water temperature – this information can be used to plot the turtle’s path around the world.
After her release, Litchi’s first few weeks of travel might be described as a casual meander along the south coast of the Western Cape. However, it wasn’t long before she started heading back to the place of her release, and it took just one month for her to arrive back at De Hoop MPA.
For 473 days, we watched as Litchi enjoyed this MPA. De Hoop MPA is an important passageway for many species, renowned for its biodiversity and abundant marine life. De Hoop MPA is managed by Cape Nature as a completely restricted area (i.e., “no take”), allowing marine wildlife to flourish and showcasing the effectiveness of such MPAs.
Litchi soaked up her time in De Hoop: we imagined that she loved saying hi to the passing common dolphins and juvenile hammerhead sharks in summer, before having fun with the calving southern right whales in winter. All the while, she enjoyed the full protection of a marine reserve, experiencing access to shallow coastal rocky platforms, perfect for scratching plastrons (bottom shell) and snacking on algae.
Then, on 16 June 2023, Litchi wandered out of the MPA to continue up the coastline for a quick 2-week mission: 130km northward, followed by a little offshore loop. But by 4 July 2023, she was back within the De Hoop boundary. Little did we know that it wasn't for long… On 30 July 2023, Litchi started heading up the coast again.
Unfortunately, this time, we won’t see where she goes! Litchi's tag stopped transmitting on 3 August 2023, just four days after leaving De Hoop.
We have had an incredible run with Litchi's tag – we’re confident that it has either fallen off (this happens naturally as turtles grow and their shell plates expand) or the battery has finally run out. We’ve tracked her movements for 553 days (1.5 years), receiving 2 190 transmissions from her tag as she has covered about 2 900km. Of these 553 tracked days, 499 were spent inside the De Hoop MPA!
It would be so interesting to know where Litchi is heading next. Is her time in De Hoop over, or will she return? Will she head back towards the region she comes from, and where might that be? Is it also a protected space for turtles? Will she be safe as she travels along the way?
Tracking turtles gives us an incredible window into their lives, a space where massive knowledge gaps still exist. This is why we have an acoustic tagging strategy for our younger green and hawksbill turtles. Acoustic tags can last up to ten years and are particularly suited to juvenile green and hawksbill turtles like Coral, Siriti, and Amber, who we released in De Hoop MPA this year.
As we imagine Litchi on the grand life adventures ahead of her, we must continue to learn more about the species she represents – their movements through important passageways and ocean areas. But, more than that, we must never cease to protect the home she is exploring. Let's decide to use less plastic, clean beaches, and create more MPAs. Let’s work together to protect the ocean that Litchi calls home.
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