This blog is part of a series about Bob, written by the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation's turtle conservation team, with the hopes that it motivates Bob-lovers to help us protect our oceans for all turtles. Learn more about this campaign at the bottom of this blog - The Flipper Effect: #ProtectBobsHome.
(Cover photo credit: Lynton Burger)
The goal of the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation's turtle team is to rescue, rehabilitate and release all our rescued sea turtle patients once they are fully recovered - even for seemingly permanent residents like Bob, the green turtle. However, each patient faces different obstacles and trauma, and thus has their own unique journey while in our care - and Bob is no exception!
What is the typical release journey for a turtle?
Every case is unique, so there isn't exactly a typical recovery and rehabilitation journey for a rescued turtle, but there are certain objective release criteria that all our turtle patients must pass before being considered for release.
First off, veterinarians need to determine that blood test results are within normal parameters. The turtle needs to be gaining weight steadily for at least four weeks, actively feeding, and need to be able to dive for and retrieve food. Furthermore, our turtle patients need to have completed courses of medications and treatments for at least two weeks, and all their injuries and/or surgical sites must be completely healed. They must also be exhibiting normal species-specific behaviours, activity, strength and responses (hence the importance of environmental enrichment). Finally, once cleared for release each sea turtle will receive a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag of the appropriate size, and all final measurements are collected.
What is a PIT tag? PIT tags help scientists track individuals by providing a reliable lifetime 'barcode' for an individual animal. Internal PIT tags are inserted via large-gauge needles or surgically implanted usually into a body cavity.
How is Bob different?
Bob’s journey has been quite different to what has been outlined above. To start off, Bob's critical care period lasted almost three months due to the immense trauma Bob underwent from ingesting a large amount of plastic (including balloons) and also having severe bruising and fractures of his plastron (stomach area), which unfortunately led to an infection of the brain, called encephalitis.
Because of this brain infection, Bob was left with mid-brain damage and was lacking certain species-specific behaviours that are necessary for a sea turtle to display in order to survive in the wild. At that time, Bob was deemed by the team and the vets to be un-releasable. So, as mentioned in previous blogs, Bob needed a little extra help to get to the point that he can be released.
Besides the intense enrichment programme and extended time period that Bob remained in the final rehabilitation stage, there are a few extra steps that the turtle and vet team have added to Bob's release procedure in order to best ensure their safety and success and to make sure Bob passes all the release criteria.
One important aspect that is different to the “typical” process is that Bob will be going through a “soft release.” A soft release is “a technique often included in reintroductions to try and improve success by providing animals with an easier or more gradual transition to the wild.”
In Bob's case due to his extended stay in the I&J Ocean Exhibit, Bob has built a sense of safety and familiarity with that space, and so to combat this the team agreed that changing Bob's environment and monitoring their behaviours during that time would be incredibly useful. This approach will be achieved by having Bob transported and housed, for a short period of time, in a new space at uShaka Marine World, in Durban. Once there, the turtle team will provide Bob with natural enrichment and diet and will monitor him closely to ensure that Bob is still exhibiting all necessary behaviours to be released into the wild.
If Bob does tick off all the boxes, her will be satellite tagged and released up the East Coast of South Africa in a Marine Protected Area, where he can be monitored even after their release!
Why is it worth the time, resources and risk?
When it comes to the release criteria Bob checks off most of the boxes: His blood work is within normal parameters, he has been steadily gaining weight for the past few of years, all his injuries healed completely a long time ago and he has been off any treatments and medications for quite some time. The team's only concerns were his behaviours and responses. With extensive enrichment work, dedication and patience from the turtle team, Bob can tick off the final box as he has been exhibiting natural species-specific behaviours, activities, strength and responses (YAY FOR BOB)!
Bob is a special sea turtle. Not only has Bob effortlessly become part of the Two Oceans Aquarium family, but he has also touched and inspired so many people all over the world to do better. Bob is the ultimate ocean ambassador and, thanks to him, our team has made strides to improve our rehabilitation facility and practices. However, Bob needs to go back home to live out his life and hopefully help to continue his species!
The Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation's turtle team's mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release all our sea turtle patients, and Bob is no exception. While the time, effort, resources and risks of Bob being released are higher than usual, we cannot justify having a healthy, fully-functioning turtle live out its life in the Aquarium, if it is possible for them to survive and thrive in the wild.
If anything, Bob's release, risks and concerns teach us once more a very important lesson: how we as human beings with all our knowledge, resources and passion, need to work even harder to minimise anthropogenic threats (such as overfishing, plastic pollution, wildlife take and trade, human-wildlife conflict, land use change, etc.) so that all wildlife can thrive in a safe environment! We owe it to ourselves, to future generations, and we owe it to Bob!
The Flipper Effect: Protect Bob's Home
Bob is at the brink of release back into the borderless wilds of the open ocean after eight years of difficult rehabilitation. As we are preparing to release him, we realise we won't be able to protect him anymore.
The reality is simple: The ocean is not safe for turtles.
Together we can change that. Bob will be facing many of the same human-caused threats that resulted in his stranding in the first place, and which are the cause of harm to the overwhelming majority of distressed sea turtles - plastic pollution, habitat destruction, careless use of fishing equipment.
In order to create an ocean that is safe for Bob and all other creatures that call it home, we must continuously take small actions towards protecting it - these small actions compound into big change. This is #TheFlipperEffect!