Baby turtles return to the ocean

The turtle hatchlings were released near Durban.

More than 100 loggerhead turtle hatchlings, which have been rehabilitated by the Two Oceans Aquarium Turtle Rescue Programme, have already been released back to the ocean.

The aquarium teamed up with the South African Association for Marine Biological Research and uShaka Sea World to release 106 loggerhead turtle hatchlings to the warm Agulhas Current, just off the coast of Durban. According to the aquarium, these 106 hatchlings were the healthiest of the more than 200 that have so far reached the sea turtle rehabilitation centre.

After a period of care at the aquarium, these turtles were flown to uShaka Sea World to undergo the final stages of their rehabilitation before release.

The turtle rescue programme team have had their hands full with the huge numbers of stranded loggerhead turtles being rescued.

The rehabilitation centre, based at the aquarium in the V&A Waterfront, took in more than 200 hatchlings since March 1, when the first hatchling was received from Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation and Awareness Centre in Plettenberg Bay.

The turtle hatchlings were rescued by the public in the coastal communities of Struisbaai, Hermanus, Plettenberg Bay, Muizenberg, Gansbaai, Sedgefield, Witsand, Stilbaai and Gordon’s Bay.

The data collected was based on the Turtle Rescue Point they were handed to.

Conservation co-ordinator at the aquarium, Talitha Noble, said they were getting lots of rescues in largely due to a really efficient rescue network.

“I’m also excited by the fact that it seems like a lot of the turtles washing up are actually being rescued, which means that we have our bases covered along the coastline. That’s quite a comforting feeling, knowing that people are aware and actively looking. Even though it means more work for us, it’s exciting because it means the system is working.”

Communications manager at the aquarium Helen Lockhart said people were now actively looking out for turtles on the beaches. “We have conducted two successful road trips up the coast, meeting with people and informing them about what to do if and when they find a stranded turtle.”

Volunteer Turtle Rescue Network Co-ordinator Tracy Whitehead said: “We’ve met the most amazing people and the rescue network has made some incredible contacts. It’s just amazing how people have been helping.”

Evanne Rothwell of Fish Hoek, who used to be a volunteer at the aquarium and is also a SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) responder, found three turtles this month – two alive and one dead. Upon assessment, she had found out the baby turtle died because it had mistakenly ate plastic. “This is the reason for many turtle deaths. They eat jellyfish, so they mistake plastic for food.”

She said about three years ago, she had found a turtle hatchling. She said people were under the impression that baby turtles should be kept in cold water, when in fact, they should be kept warm. She said the baby turtles were hatched near the coasts of KwaZulu-Natal and swim south until they reach the warm waters of the Agulhas Current. If a hatchling is lucky, it will be carried by the Agulhas Current as it turns east off the coast of the Western Cape, and out into the warm Indian Ocean.

Unfortunately, this isn’t easy for the little hatchlings and many of them are ejected from the Agulhas Current into the cold water of the Atlantic ocean. “They usually are cold when they are washed up, and if found, they need to be kept warm, so I came up with this idea to use ice-cream boxes with towels in them until they are collected by the aquarium or Law Enforcement.”

She said the turtles could be kept in the box for up to four hours, and people should contact the aquarium, or the Turtle Network immediately, so that they can be transported to the aquarium for further care. She has also distributed a few ice-cream boxes with towels in them to some of the rescue network hatchling drop-off points on the coast, including at Shark Spotters and the community emergency control room at Fish Hoek.

Ms Lockhart said when a turtle arrived at the aquarium after it had been rescued, it received a thorough assessment by the turtle team – it is cleaned, weighed, measured, checked for injuries, and assigned to its own rehab tank.

“If it does have injuries, these are treated to the best of our abilities.

“Some of the turtles have died, but we don’t have exact numbers. Some die because they are simply too weak. If they have been exposed to the cold water for too long they will be hypothermic, some will be dehydrated and then there are those with injuries. Many of the turtles that do die have ingested plastic – microplastics – and this will have caused blockages, starvation or infection.”

She said the turtles that could not be rehabilitated would most probably be euthanised. The other hatchlings would remain at the aquarium until the veterinarians were satisfied with their health.