Rare sea turtle’s journey back to health

16 March 2018 - 12:23 By Tony Carnie
Pemba the turtle is back in the sea after more than three years ashore
Pemba the turtle is back in the sea after more than three years ashore
Image: uShaka Sea World/SA Association for Marine Biological Research

It has been a remarkable journey in so many ways for Pemba‚ a rare sea turtle who is back home in the Indian Ocean once more after spending more than three years convalescing as a landlubber.

Just before Christmas 2014‚ the severely injured Olive Ridley sea turtle was found floating in the sea off Cape Town.

Her outer shell was ripped open by a spinning boat propeller and - quite apart from the grisly cuts‚ infected wounds and suspected lung damage - the turtle now had a very big problem.

Much like a crippled submarine‚ the turtle was no longer able to dive down underwater because the damage to her shell had allowed air to enter an internal body cavity.

With so much air trapped inside her coelomic cavity‚ Pemba had pretty much turned into a balloon and could no longer descend underwater to catch food.

But more than three years later – after a series of surgical operations‚ lengthy road and air journeys covering more than 1 700km and special dive training sessions - the adult female turtle was declared healthy once more and released back to sea last week at a marine sanctuary on the border between South Africa and Mozambique.

Marine specialists Malini Pather, Dr George Hughes and Kevin Spilby keep watch as the rehabilitated turtle makes her way back to the water.
Marine specialists Malini Pather, Dr George Hughes and Kevin Spilby keep watch as the rehabilitated turtle makes her way back to the water.
Image: uShaka Sea World/SA Association for Marine Biological Research

The lengthy rehabilitation process was a joint operation involving the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town and uShaka Sea World in Durban.

Recounting Pemba’s story‚ uShaka spokeswoman Anne Kunz said the turtle was taken to the Two Oceans Aquarium after she was found with a deep fracture on the side of her shell.

“Surgery was performed and the fracture was wired together. This healed within a few months. The turtle was under constant veterinary supervision and was treated with antibiotics for the fracture to her shell as well as a suspected lung tear.”

Several attempts were also made to remove large volumes of air from the turtle’s coelomic cavity‚ but this proved unsuccessful. “The trapped air caused her to be positively buoyant and she could therefore not dive down as a healthy turtle would to find food.”

Treatment continued in Cape Town until September 2016‚ when a decision was made to move Pemba to uShaka Sea World in Durban for further treatment and future release. To reach Durban‚ Pemba was transported nearly 1 300 km in a private aircraft made available by the Bateleurs‚ a non-profit group that assists with the transportation of threatened animals across southern Africa.

“Staff at uShaka Sea World spent the next 16 months working with Pemba‚ who still had buoyancy and lung issues. Slowly but surely her diving abilities began to increase.”

Before she was released, marine researchers fitted a satellite tag to her shell. This will allow scientists to track her movements for at least six months via GPS co-ordinates transmitted by the satellite tag.
Before she was released, marine researchers fitted a satellite tag to her shell. This will allow scientists to track her movements for at least six months via GPS co-ordinates transmitted by the satellite tag.
Image: uShaka Sea World/SA Association for Marine Biological Research

Kunz said because Olive Ridley turtles feed mainly on crustaceans‚ Pemba could not be released until she could dive deep enough to find food. However‚ enticed by tasty snacks to descend ever deeper in her rehabilitation tank‚ she gradually regained her ability to dive‚ and last week the turtle was transported another 400km by road to Mabibi‚ a remote section of coastline in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park considered ideal for rehabilitation due to the abundance of suitable food and minimal human disturbance.

But Pemba’s journey is far from over. Before she was released‚ marine researchers fitted a satellite tag to her shell. This will allow scientists to track her movements for at least six months via GPS co-ordinates the tag transmits. Olive Ridley turtles are uncommon along the beaches of South Africa‚ though small populations of this species are found off northern Mozambique‚ Tanzania and north-west Madagascar.

“Wherever she goes she will help us understand more about these elusive and endangered animals‚” said Malini Pather‚ a quarantine aquarist at uShaka Sea World.

• You can follow Pemba’s latest journey via regular updates posted at www.saambr.org.za/pembas-journey/ Since her release on March 8‚ the turtle has swum more than 400km southwards and is currently heading south -back towards Cape Town.

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