Mon, 21 September 2020

The time before lockdown feels like eons ago, but it’s mere months after Spike spent the day on a boat to record a special moment in the lives of four sea turtles.


OPERATION TURTLE: Hooked on Africa surges through a grey green sea. Photo Spike

There's something about turtles, something ancient. When you dig into human history, you find that turtles are a symbolic window into the mystic moment of creation itself. In Hindu mythology, and in other cultures and religions, the turtle is the foundation of the world … as in us, the planet and the universe. In India, four elephants bear the world while standing on the turtle’s back. That’s one tough turtle, mythological, metaphorical or mineral.

Perhaps because of their languid liquid longevity - they live to 60 years or more (shielded by a tough shell or carapace) - the turtle is a universal symbol of immortality and tranquility.

With these mystic moments swimming around in my head, I was in need of some science as I drove towards Hout Bay. Luck would have it that I was about to board a ski boat chartered by the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation to cruise 30 or 40 miles out into the deep sea to release four loggerhead turtles - two sub-adults and two hatchlings - into the briny blue.


KEEP COOL: The loggerheads were soothed with wet towels on the way out. Photo Spike

After meeting an assortment of Two Oceans personnel, turtle loving people and conservationists, we roar out of Hout Bay into a thick sea mist that muffles the day - an opaque grey screen that dulls the sun into a pallid glow.

On the stern - where the sway and crack of the bouncing boat is at its minimum - lie two large wooden boxes and two smaller plastic containers that hold our precious cargo. Brett Glasby, head of the Marine Wildlife Management Programme at the Foundation, sits and calms the two sub-adults beneath a layer of wet towels. They flap against the sides of their wooden boxes disconsolately, yearning to be free of this hard-edged world and the ceaseless chatter of the soft-edged humans who crowd the terrestrial part of it.

Mizu and Kaiyo were found floating head down off Cape Point last November, severely sunburned and bloated by gastric gases induced by plastic in the gut. Plastic packets look like yummy jellyfish to a turtle. Once buoyancy is compromised, they cannot dive. That means they cannot eat.


#SWIMFREE: When you spend a lot of time with them, you grow quite attached. Photo Spike

Their situation worsens when they drift from the life-giving warmth of more tropical waters into the cold currents off the Cape. They become "cold-stunned". As ectothermic reptiles, they rely on external heat to function. In cold water, their systems shut down. Numb and helpless, they float until they die … or get rescued.

You can see the sunburn in a halfmoon shape across the back of Mizu and Kaiyo. After a pitstop at the Turtle Rescue Programme, which is part of the Foundation, where they were nourished by food, healed by meds and disgorged of the plastic by surgery or poop-inducing chemicals, these rescue turtles are ready for the final step in their rescue: freedom!

Written in koki pen on each box is their name, with the tag #swimfree and little hearts drawn by devoted rehab staff. Ag sweet!

Little Eileen and Evie are on board too. Eileen is missing a front flipper, hence “I lean”, and Evie was brought in on New Year’s Eve. On the 40 mile journey to where we will release the turtles, Curator of Animal Health at the Two Oceans Aquarium Nicholas Nicolle tells me how they name the turtles - often after the situation they are found in, an element of their rescue, or a physical feature.


"I LEAN": When you have one flipper, you tend to lean over, hence Eileen. Photo Lynton Burger

A bobbing turtle becomes “Bob”. The famous Yoshi, the loggerhead who has become an international celebrity, was apparently named by the Japanese fishermen who rescued her in 1997. They apparently even made a little pool for her on board their trawler, and named her after their diminutive cook Yoshitaro. Yoshi was also little back then - the size of a dinner plate, with a mass of 2kg.

She lived at the aquarium for 25 years before she was released in December 2017, with a mass of 180kg.She lived at the aquarium for 25 years before she was released in December 2017, with a mass of 180kg. Her electronic satellite tag, which was about to reach its 14 month lifespan (but incredibly has now lasted almost three years), has recorded a world record 41,100km journey (for any tracked wild animal) from up the West Coast of Africa and back down, all the way to Australia, where scientists are keen to locate her to find out if she’s an Aussie loggerhead coming home. Well, the proof of her citizenry appears to be there, but it will hard to get to her. She’s settled at a remote and beautiful spot called 80 Mile Beach in West Australia in the warm tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, still clocking more than 10 kays a day cruising the depths to feed and whatnot.

Our boat hammers through an unsettled sea, which is choppy and torn by side currents. Seasick tablets change hands. Occasionally someone “barks at the sharks”. I once knew a Xhosa fisherman on the Wild Coast with that nickname. The air is cold in the mist. The wake that foams up from the 250hp twin motors is laced with ice blue and aquamarine grey.


SHOOTING THE BREEZE: Grant Scholtz chats to Two Oceans personnel on the way out. Photo Spike

Seabirds swirl above the swells. Tiny storm petrels swerve and dip like bats. A great shearwater cruises on stiff wings through the troughs, while supine gulls glide from above, beady eyes on the hunt for a silvery morsel.

Grant Scholtz, well known big wave photographer and surfboard collector, keeps us informed of conditions while skipper Sean Amor drives the ski boat from Hooked on Africa charters. It is important that the animals are released in warmer water, where prey is abundant. We’re already 25 miles out, and the cold waters of the Benguela have not yet given way to the Agulhas that runs across our path somewhere out in the mist.

“It changes,” shouts Scholtz over the din of the engines and thud of the hulls, “sometimes you get the warm water 20 miles out, sometimes 40!”

We need at least 21 degrees to be in the safe zone for the turtles. The food that loggerheads eat - a variety of invertebrates, fish and hard-shelled creatures - can be found in these waters. Warm water is crucial to the existence of prey and predator.


TURTLE FLY BY: Using powerful front flippers one of the two turtles skedaddles. Photo Burger

The boat ride out provides time to ponder and talk of the existence of turtles. They have been around for 110 million years. Some species grow larger than a metre, with a mass of 180 kilograms. They have powerful jaws to crack open horseshoe crabs and conch shells. They easily sever human fingers.

The forelegs of sea turtles have evolved to flipper-shaped blades that enable them to "fly" through the water.Animal health expert Nicolle, speaking to myself and marine biologist and author Lynton Burger who has come to document the release with an high-end waterproof camera, tells us how he met Australian scientists during a conference who were missing fingers after jumping off boats to wrangle wild turtles. Those beaks are not to be messed with.

The forelegs of sea turtles have evolved to flipper-shaped blades that enable them to "fly" through the water. These immensely strong flippers can propel them at scarcely believable speeds. Similar to a cheetah’s ability to break speed records in short bursts, a loggerhead can hit 35km/h when it wants to put foot. Relative to the ocean, that is insanely fast, just a whisker under Usain Bolt’s best time for the 100m on terra firma. Their hind feet act as steering mechanisms.

Warm water is near. “Nineteen degrees!” shouts Scholtz. The water now growls from the stern in hues of azure and cobalt blue. Even the air feels warmer. The mist is less imposing.


FREEDOM NIGH: Candice Ann Lortan is thrilled to be able to release Evie into the wild. Photo Spike

TwoOceansTurtleRelease003They also have sharp hooks on the side of their flippers. A forceful flap of a flipper can spike you pretty bad, and cause severe bruising, or even broken bones. The things humans do for love.

A fascinating aspect of turtle reproduction is the ability of females to store sperm. With each copulation comes a semen top-up to the stores, which can last several years. Each time they lay eggs, the potency of the semen diminishes, and the number of eggs gradually grow fewer. But what it means for each brood is genetic variety from several fathers.

The water temperature has reached 21 degrees. It is time. We stop. The grumble of the motors gives way to the soft, wet slap of wavelets against the hull. The excitement is audible. There is high-pitched chatter, and hoots. Those who wish to record the moment gear up: wetsuits, snorkels, masks and cameras.

Inge Adams and Talitha Noble - stalwarts of the Turtle Rescue Programme - spring into action. They named Mizu and Kaiyo in honour of Yoshi. Mizu is Japanese for ocean, and Kaiyo means forgiveness. I suspect they are not random choices. Bubbly and effervescent, they’re tagged the Turtle Girls by their colleagues.

Top right: Lynton Burger gears up.


TURTLE TIME: Avoiding the spiky flippers, Brett and Nicholas grab the carapace. Photo Spike

Others get ready by getting cushions and towels out - tried and tested methods to ensure the parting of the ways entails minimum trauma for the turtles.

Joined by intern Genevieve Bergemann and another young turtle fan, marine biology graduate Candice Ann Lortan, we start with the little ones Eileen and Evie. Lortan is thrilled to be handed Evie for release. She is to say afterwards: “now I can die happy after such a beautiful moment”.

The hatchlings are in no hurry to disappear, and swim around the gaggle of divers in the water. The “ou toppies” on the other hand are gone in a flash when gently pushed overboard. Burger barely manages to fire off a camera shot before they high tail it into the deep.

On the way home, there are shrieks of excitement and joy. It’s been emotional. For Glasby, who has been with the two big turtles since he picked them up in Simonstown three months before, it’s a happy and sad moment. “It’s been special to be here to see them zoom off.”

As Bergemann says: “Their struggle - through cold waters, plastic ingestion and months of rehab - was not for nothing. They are now home.”

The amazing success of the Turtle Rescue Programme has taken place under the tutelage of Maryke Musson, former General Curator of the aquarium, and now CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation. She is justifiably proud of their success.


BYE BYE BIG GUY: Mizu is sent to the deep after a three month pitstop. Photo Spike

“Last year, we released 195 turtles into the wild in collaboration with uShaka Marine World in Durban,” she said, adding that more than 600 turtles over five species have rejoined their brethren in the oceans over the last few years.

The work is challenging. For instance, “leatherback turtles are huge, and made for the open ocean. We really struggle to make them eat. They don't like confined space, and always bump into things.”

Fortunately, they only deal with perhaps one leatherback a year, with most of the numbers made up by loggerheads, who nest on the South African coast and are the most common patients, but they also rehabilitate green, olive ridley and hawksbill turtles that wash up on our shores.

As we near the majestic shark tooth of the Sentinel mountain at Hout Bay, the shroud of mist vaporises, burned off by the sun-warmed air of the land.

The mission is complete. Another small step has been taken to save the animals of our planet, and ourselves.

The Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation - founded by the Two Oceans Aquarium - is the non profit and public benefit partner of the Two Oceans Aquarium. All education, conservation and research activities have been transferred to this separate legal entity that operates from and within the Aquarium. The Foundation was established with the purpose of growing impact within environmental education, marine conservation and research. Because it is a Section 18a non-profit, it aims to attract more funding to grow its ocean impact by issuing 18a certification that are a tax benefit for donors. To support the Foundation or find more info, click here www.aquariumfoundation.org.za @aquariumfoundation

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