Every year, hundreds of tiny turtle hatchlings are rescued with some lucky ones being taken to the Two Oceans Aquarium where they are nursed back to health before being released off Hout Bay.
Sea turtles are threatened with extinction by us, says Talitha Noble, the manager of the aquarium’s turtle conservation centre, which is funded by the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation, a non-profit, public benefit organisation.
“Turtles are incredible, long-lived and ancient creatures, but they are struggling under the impact of human behaviour. All seven species of sea turtle are endangered to some level. But due to their resilience, there is hope if we act to protect their ocean home,” says Ms Noble.
The released turtles always include 6- to 9-month-old loggerhead turtles, she says.
Very few of these turtles are tagged because the devices are imported from America and can cost anywhere from R30 000 to R80 000, according to Ms Noble.
Geri is one of the turtles that has been tagged. The female green turtle arrived at the conservation centre on July 25, 2021. She had been rescued at Paternoster and had a missing front left flipper. The stump had already healed, but she also had severe injuries, including deep cuts, exposing the bone, to her front right flipper.
After being treated with antibiotics, fluids, vitamins and analgesics, Geri was very active and regularly managed to unbandage herself. Within three weeks, the turtle was active and eating.
After careful monitoring, the turtle-rehab team released Geri into the Two Oceans I&J Ocean Exhibit about two months after her arrival.
Geri was fitted with a satellite tracker and released about two hours southwest of Hout Bay, where the water gets warmer, in January last year. “Her release may provide researchers with insight into the complex nature of green turtle migrations. As Geri travels around the globe, perhaps to one of the 80 countries where green turtles nest, she now has the chance to contribute to the survival of her endangered species,” says Ms Noble.
“Turtle’s like Geri, with a missing front flipper, can thrive in the wild. Given time to heal, they quickly learn to compensate for their missing flipper. Typically, sea turtles use their front flippers for propulsion and their back flippers for steering and stability. It takes them little time to get used to this new arrangement.”
Geri is not the first three-flippered sea turtle the team has treated. In 2021, Arnie, a smaller green turtle, was treated and released the following year.
Sea turtles swim vast distances. According to Ms Noble, loggerhead turtles migrate about 10 000 km a year while leatherbacks reach over 16 000 km. Yoshi, a large loggerhead sea turtle released by the Two Oceans Aquarium 27 nautical miles south west of Hout Bay in 2017, swam 40 011 km in 1 003 days. “The longest tracked journey of any marine animal,” says Ms Noble.
“Our skilled staff treat each rescued hatchling separately to ensure that over 85% survive so they can be released. Normally only 1 out of 1 000 sea turtles survives to maturity. The odds are stacked against them.”
They face high natural predation due to their small size, but many also succumb to human-related threats including fishing nets, pollution and plastic litter, such as drinking straws, which, when ingested, block the turtle’s stomach, causing a slow and painful death.
To support the rescue work visit aquariumfoundation.org.za
• On Tuesday April 4, the Viennese Schönbrunn Palace Orchestra will perform Symphony in Sea Major at Vida Nova Retreat in Hout Bay, in aid of turtle conservation at Ilha do Fogo, or Fire Island, off northern Mozambique. According to Fire Island Conservation spokeswoman Lynne Whitaker, funds raised go towards training the local fisherman to tag and release the turtles, rather than catching, eating or selling them.