Where is the Olive Ridley Project based?
We are the Olive Ridley Project (ORP) and we have a Marine Turtle Rescue Centre in the Maldives. We are in Baa Atoll, about 140km North West of Malé, the capital city. It is a protected biosphere and the Rescue Centre is on a resort in the south of that Atoll.
How long has the centre been running for?
We officially opened in February 2017, so we have just celebrated our 5th year anniversary which is very exciting!
Which species of sea turtle do you see?
I guess the little bit of the giveaway is that we are the Olive Ridley Project, so we do primarily see olive ridley sea turtles. But that’s not to say that it’s the only one; about 80% of our case load is olive ridley, but I have seen quite a few hawksbills, we have seen a few greens, and we even saw one baby loggerhead once. So we have seen 4 of the 5 potential species that can be found in the Maldives.
Approximately, how many cases do you see each year?
The highest number of turtles we’ve seen was nearly 50 in 2019, and then sometimes around 34. So on average around the 40s. It was getting higher and higher year after year up until COVID. So 2019 was a really big year, and we would have expected that we would have had more in 2020, but due to the lack of boat traffic and tourism, it meant that a lot of sea turtles weren’t being discovered. We receive a lot of our patients via inter-island travel and especially resort’s snorkel trips and dive boats. Without those things going ahead I suspect our numbers were artificially low. Nonetheless we might see that now that we are back in more of a normal situation, that we might get lot busier, we will find out!
How many patients can you care for at one given time?
We have 7 large tanks, and they can be divided if necessary. It is dependent on the size of the turtles, but around 8-10 turtles with our tank space as it is. So if we have a few small ones we can potentially have a few sharing a divided tank.
What are the most common injuries and illnesses you treat for?
The vast majority of our patients have been entangled in discarded fishing net – known as ghost gear. We most commonly see severe flipper injuries, including a lot of broken humeri and pretty severe wounds. So, a lot of what we do is advanced wound care, as well as flipper amputations, which are treated surgically. Sometimes we see fish hooks as well, but certainly flipper injuries are most common. Alongside that, other things like malnutrition and emaciation as a result of being entangled for so long. We also see a lot of pneumonia and buoyancy problems, all sort of tying into the ghost gear.
What facilities/equipment do you have access to?
We have our own digital x-rays, ultrasonography, a microscope, a centrifuge (to process blood samples), an endoscope (our newest piece of kit).
We are really well equipped, so we should hopefully be able to detect and deal with anything we could come across, and we are certainly the most equipped veterinary clinic in the whole of the Maldives – which is very exciting. Especially since we have achieved this all through fundraising and donations from guests & supporters, which have all helped us get to a very good position.
Does your centre carry out any research?
Yes, the charity undertakes multiple projects in the Maldives, from Sea Turtle ID, epibiont studies, the socio-economic impact of sea turtle tourism and soon we will also be taking part in a genetic study, to name a few.
Although the role of the veterinarian at the clinic is primarily medical care, I do get involved in fringe research. We are looking into doing more including research using satellite tags, as well as developing an enrichment project, etc. We are also wanting to publish more case reports, as we are so unique with how many Olive ridleys we see, being one of the few rescue centres that deal almost exclusively with this species.
How are your turtles treated at your centre?
We are lucky here at ORP to have been the first veterinary-led Rescue Centre in the Maldives, meaning we always have a permanent full-time vet on site (for about a year at a time) and managed by our remote lead veterinarian. This makes immediate medical care very accessible at all times. We are also in the process of hiring a veterinary nurse that will expand our medical team.
What are your main goals?
Our primary goal is the rehabilitation and release of as many sea turtles as possible – which we focus on the most. But we do have secondary goals. We do a lot of guest education and outreach, since we are located in a resort which is the whole island. So we have a lot of guests and staff members who may not know much about sea turtles, or even seen a sea turtle, have limited awareness of ghost gear/entanglements, anthropogenic risks to turtles, etc. So a lot of what I do with my interns and volunteers – the Rescue Centre team – is a lot of education. We talk to the public, we show them examples of the nets, they get a chance to see the turtles we have and their injuries. They always all loads of questions and we get a lot of engagement!
What is one of your most interesting or rewarding case?
Sea turtles are incredibly resilient, when you see them day in and day out the things that they are recovering from. Wound care is always fascinating, they can be immense. So seeing a case of wound care successfully progress month after month is always very interesting. But I do have a specific case that I always talk about, which is a hawksbill I had called ‘Harry’. Given that the survival of baby turtles is really shocking, combined with the fact that they are a critically endangered species, he was very important from a conservation standpoint. He was with us for 3 months and had a bit of a mystery illness – which is sometimes the case. But we managed him with a feeding tube, we did an explorative laparotomy etc. and eventually through my care restored him to normal. It was very rewarding and exciting, because I thought he was not going to make it at all.
What is it about sea turtles that you most admire?
Sea turtles are very cool! They have been around for so long, doing their thing for hundreds of millions of years, and when you see them out there in the water they just look amazing. There is so many great facts about sea turtles. One of the main ones is that they form such a strong magnetic signature of the earth, that they can make their way back to their nesting grounds after 35 years, having migrated thousands of miles in the mean time! This is incredible considering they only spend a few minutes on the sand in the beginning of their life as baby turtles. I think people maybe underestimate them because they look like they don’t have a lot going on – they cannot vocalize, they do not have major facial expressions, but this is not true! They have such powerful instincts and adaptations, which I just think are amazing. They are so essential and intrinsically involved in the environment. Hundreds of years ago when they were so much more abundant, they probably contributed in even more ways we have lost now due to their huge decline and from remaining in such small numbers for a long time. So it really does feel like the best thing I could be doing and want to be doing is trying to get as many back home as possible.
In what ways can members of your local community help sea turtles?
We have on one side the local community here in the Maldives and we also have our other online in Europe and the rest of the world. Here for example I am very lucky to work with a Maldivian intern, who is very important for outreach and education, and educating me about integrating and bringing this information to the Maldivians. With local communities there is certainly a large direct impact as they can assist in our efforts, for example in knowing where nesting sites are and not touching/disturbing them, etc. Looking into Europe, it is a bit more removed from these direct effects, but there is always ways to get involved even remotely:
- Supporting your favourite charities
- Helping fund the work of those overseas who are already working in the area – like Olive Ridley Project and many other conservation charities
- Also personal impacts such like reducing plastic consumption, become aware where our fish comes from (a lot of the ghost net entanglements we deal with come from fishing operations).
There is always space to be a little more cautious about how we consume and give our money to. Following along, learning what you can and disseminating that information to others is always a great start.
Thank you to Dr Minnie and Olive Ridley Project for this insightful and engaging interview.