TWO OCEANS AQUARIUM EDUCATION FOUNDATION
An interview with the Sea Turtle Conservation and Rescue Team
Where is TOAEF based and what are your roles within the Turtle Team?
We are based in Cape Town, South Africa. We are missing some elements from our team today but: Alexandra Panagiotou is the Enrichment Specialist; Claudine van Zyl is the Research Intern and Husbandry Specialist; Gen Bergmann is the Medical Analyst and Martine Viljoen is the Sea Turtle Aquarist and Social Media Coordinator.
How long has the centre been operating for?
The Two Oceans Aquarium, where we are based, opened in 1995. The official data collection started in 2010.
Which species of sea turtle do you see?
We can find five out of the seven species of sea turtles. The ones that we most commonly receive are Loggerheads and Green sea turtles. Then on occasion we have rescued Hawksbills, Olive Ridleys and Leatherbacks.
Approximately, how many cases do you see each year?
It varies from year to year. Our turtles are mostly spotted by the public on the beaches or at sea, so last year we had our lowest number of patients due to COVID. This year we rescued 61 hatchlings. For example, in 2019, we had an impressive number of over 200 hatchlings come in! So, it does vary a lot. Regarding the sub-adult and adult sea turtles we have now established a timeline of when they commonly strand along the coastline, which is from September to November.
How many patients can you care for at one given time?
We have two different age groups coming in. In terms of hatchlings, we can comfortably hold a little bit over one hundred. In terms of sub-adults/adults we can hold about thirteen or so, which is what we have at the moment! We are currently busy working with the Aquarium’s staff to expand our facility, so that we can admit even more patients!
What are the most common injuries and illnesses you treat for?
Cold Shock is one of the things we deal with the most. We have many Loggerhead hatchlings that are arriving in this state. For a reptile this means that they are at a much lower temperature than their prime temperature zone and everything just shuts down, especially gut movement, and they just become quite lethargic. They come in very weak, very cold, very dehydrated. With our big females, they are often found in the state of cold shock, but usually it is due to something else underlying. Quite often it is a bacterial infection of some sort and then with all of them, you often find within the first few weeks there is plastic. Whether plastic has caused the stranding or not I guess we will never be able to know, but it is something we unfortunately do treat for.
How do your turtles get treated at your centre?
We are quite fortunate to have a nice on-site clinic at the moment and our vets are actually consulting vets, so they work on a consultancy part-time basis. A lot of the actual medical care is administered by the turtle team under their direction.
What equipment do you have access to?
In-house we have access to an X-ray machine, which is quite a powerful diagnostic tool for us. If we need to take that further, we do have a very lovely doctor who sponsors CT scans and MRI scans for our bigger patients. Furthermore, we are very fortunate that our funding allows us to often perform full blood work on many of our sub-adult/adult turtles.
Does your centre carry out any research?
We do carry out mostly small case studies, but we are also working on bigger projects. Claudine has conducted two interesting research projects. One was analysis of epibiont communities on stranded sea turtles that we found along the South African coast and the second one was about micro-plastics ingested by post-hatching Loggerheads that came to our centre. Currently Talitha, our Conservation Manager, is creating a baseline of healthy blood parameters for loggerhead sea turtles. And I am running research on the effects of environmental enrichment on sea turtle recovery.
What are your main goals?
Several! Our mission is informing and inspiring the public to love the ocean, love the sea turtles and to protect the ocean and the natural environment by raising awareness, educating, and getting communities involved. And of course, one of our goals is to become one of the top marine rehabilitation centres in the world!
What is one of your most interesting or rewarding case?
We have plenty but I guess we will choose our turtle Yoshi.
Yoshi first arrived in 1997. She was rescued somewhere in the Indian ocean by a Japanese fishing vessel and was named after their cook. Once they landed in Cape Town she was brought into the Two Ocean’s Aquarium. She was the first sea turtle housed here, thus she provided a lot of knowledge and learning opportunities to the staff about this species’ care and husbandry.
Yoshi stayed with us for a long time, 18 years in total! By 2015, the satellite tagging program began, after many turtles had been rescued and released by the Aquarium. At the time Yoshi was strong, healthy, and feisty so they started her on a 18-month intensive training program to get her ready to be released. This involved having her do swim laps, interact with different types of enrichment, etc. By the end of it, in 2017, the whole team was confident that she was ready, so they took her to the southern coast of South Africa and released her.
Yoshi was tagged so we could follow her journey through satellite information. We could follow her as she started travelling up the West coast all the way up to Angola. At this stage we were thinking that possibly she was originally from the Mediterranean or Cape Verde. Then she turned back around and returned all the way back to Cape Town. Within one year she had visited three countries all in a huge loop! Her journey did not stop there because by December 2019 she had accomplished an impressive 34.000 kilometres and it seemed like she was on her way to Australia, where she arrived in February of 2020. Yoshi led Australian scientists to discover a foraging site she had visited! This feeding area had over forty other Loggerhead sea turtles and was a site the scientists were unaware of. So, not only has Yoshi become a celebrity in South Africa, but she also holds the world record for longest transmitted marine animal in the world! She has inspired all of us very much. She has proven how resilient, strong, and incredible these creatures are.
This is one of our favourite stories, though we have many many more!
Why do you want to work with sea turtles?
They are just the most incredible creatures. They come in with these ailments, whether it is cold shock, entanglement, etc. and they seem to recover from everything with just a little help. We have had a couple of cases now where we have had patients coming in with three flippers and the problem with them was just cold shock. So they had three flippers, and came in completely healed and we were like okay but why are you here? I can’t wrap my head around the fact that they are actually able to completely be okay at the end of the day through all the trauma that they go through. They blow my mind every day.
And because we see daily how resilient and incredible, they are, it is just such a huge shock that all of sea turtles are endangered. Because you understand what state our oceans are, and in what trouble our planet is if these incredibly resilient animals are suffering. It just shows that the system is broken almost in a way.
In what ways can members of your local community help sea turtles?
There is a variety of ways that our locals can get involved. It can be from applying for our volunteer program or one of our internships. If you can’t do hands-on work, you can help bringing the turtles to us. Being a volunteer driver or walking on the beaches throughout the year looking for stranded turtles (and other marine animals). We have a turtle hotline number and a turtle network which has over 500 people on it and was created by Tracy, another member of our team.
Also, during the hatchling season we have an “adopt the hatchling” program. It is a symbolic adoption where people pay a fee and those funds contribute to the animal’s medication and food, and they get to name the hatchling! This offers support even if the public isn’t present here, so our community really helps us.
And also, in reducing the use of plastic or disposing of it appropriately. It all starts at home, and we can all make a difference.
Thank you to the Sea Turtle and Conservation rescue team for this insightful and engaging interview.