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Meet “Turtle Dad”: The Radiologist who branched out to turtles!

By Laura du Toit
- Turtles, Our team, Conservation, Foundation, Blog
Meet “Turtle Dad”: The Radiologist who branched out to turtles!

Many of our turtle community members may not know that our Turtle Conservation Centre works closely with a doctor not of turtles but of humans… Dr Peter Berndt, a Radiologist at Winelands Radiology!

Dr Peter has been instrumental in the journeys of many of the turtles undergoing rehabilitation at our Turtle Conservation Centre. He’s even studied turtle anatomy and pathology in pursuit of his work with us! Peter has a special connection with Nobomvu, the loggerhead turtle who has had a long and arduous rehabilitation.

Let’s hear more about Peter’s journey with turtles and the Turtle Conservation Centre

How did Peter’s interest in turtles begin?

“I stand on the shoulders of many people who have developed my love for these creatures,” says Peter.

Before Peter was a doctor, he spent many family holidays as a young boy in Cape St Francis. This is where he was first introduced to the family Cheloniidae (which includes both turtles and tortoises). The first time Peter ever saw a turtle was in Cape St Francis: A green turtle was feeding on abundant seaweed in a deep, calm section of water near the rocks.

“It was love at first sight,” says Peter. “Since then, there has been no turning back and I am totally captivated by these wonderful creatures!”

Dr Peter Berndt has scanned Kai, a sub-adult loggerhead turtle undergoing rehabilitation.

How long has Peter been working with the Turtle Team?

Peter became involved with the Turtle Team thanks to the power and reach of social media. In early 2021, the Turtle Conservation Centre team took Annie, a turtle in rehabilitation, for a CT scan and posted about the occasion on social media. Seeing this, Peter was struck with inspiration – as a Radiologist and partner at Winelands Radiology, he had access to the equipment needed to scan a turtle. He discussed the possibility with his partners at Winelands Radiology, all of whom readily agreed to have a few unconventional patients.

“All my partners give me unreserved full support for the scanning of the turtles, and I want to thank them and my staff (who have also become passionate about these creatures) for the enthusiasm and support they give me,” says Peter.

The rest is history! Since 2021, Peter has generously and compassionately scanned numerous turtles undergoing rehabilitation at the Turtle Conservation Centre. He also relished the challenge of learning turtle anatomy and pathology: “They say you are never too old to learn, so I have enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) the learning process!”

With Peter’s help, our team has discovered and successfully treated turtles for issues like respiratory tract infections, lung infections, arthritis, and osteitis. Dr Bernice van Huyssteen, Turtle Conservation Centre vet, says “Peter is incredibly kind; always willing to help and lend his incredible expertise. Working with Peter has changed the way we approach workups and made a massive difference in the way we diagnose and treat complicated conditions”.

Dr Peter Berndt preparing Harley, a hawksbill turtle, for a CT scan.

What is Peter’s connection with Nobomvu, the loggerhead turtle?

Nobomvu is an adult loggerhead turtle who has had a long rehabilitation with the Turtle Conservation Centre. When Nobomvu was rescued in 2021, she was found in a pitiful state. She was ice cold, sunburned, emaciated, and entangled in a 50kg net that had made deep gouges in her front flippers.

Because of the trauma and injuries that she had sustained, Nobomvu developed septic arthritis and osteitis of both her elbow joints, as well as systemic bacteremia. That was when Peter met her for the first time while scanning her for persisting infection. At times, both Peter and our Turtle Conservation Centre team doubted that she would survive. Thankfully, while the team persevered with Nobomvu’s rehabilitation, the resilient turtle slowly started to get better.

“I am still amazed at how she pulled through – she has left me in wonder about the resilience of these wonderful, ancient creatures,” says Peter. “I think that she symbolises much of how we, as humans, have and are abusing the ocean, but her unbelievable resilience also symbolises hope,” says Peter.

Whilst spending time scanning Nobomvu, as well as scuba diving alongside her in the Two Oceans Aquarium’s I&J Ocean Exhibit, Peter says that the turtle has taught him some crucial life lessons. These are to never give up, trust the hand that is helping you, live in hope, and grow beyond challenges. These life lessons have served Nobomvu well, as she was released off the Cape Point coast recently.

Dr Peter Berndt and our Dr Bernice van Huyssteen preparing Nobomvu for her final CT scan.

What’s the best part about working with the turtles at the Turtle Conservation Centre?

The answer to this is multifaceted and deeply rooted for Peter…

His love of turtles began as a child: “I don’t think the turtle team realises what a big gift they have given me – I am living a childhood dream of working with these creatures, and every time I interact with them, I am so happy,” he says.

The turtles undergoing rehabilitation at the Turtle Conservation Centre provide Peter (and many others) insight into the impact of humans on their species and the ocean environment. “They are amazing survivors and ancient mariners who are now under threat due to human behaviour and our lack of respect for their ocean home. I wish I could do more to help them,” says Peter.

Thirdly, Peter says of the Turtle Conservation Centre team, “I don’t recall ever being part of such a committed, enthusiastic, and dedicated group like them. I want to thank every member of the turtle team who has and still is teaching me the ways of these creatures”.

The Turtle Conservation Centre team is deeply grateful to Turtle Dad for his commitment, kindness, and unfailing enthusiasm. Here's to many more memories for the turtle team and their Turtle Dad!

Turtle Dad and members of the turtle team after successful scans for Nobomvu, Kai, Reef (loggerhead turtles) and Harley (hawksbill turtle).

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