Back to the deep blue for rescued turtle

By Melanie Gosling Time of article published Dec 17, 2015

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Melanie Gosling

Environment Writer

HAWSKBILL turtles are critically endangered because of their beautiful shells and have been hunted for centuries to make “tortoiseshell” trinkets.

But there is a good news story for one hawksbill, named Otto, which was rescued after being found way out of her natural range on the chilly West Coast in June last year.

After being rehabilitated and released off Cape Point two weeks ago, the satellite tag on her back shows she is swimming back fast to the warmer subtropical waters in the east that is her natural habitat. By early this week, she was offshore of Mossel Bay.

According to the Two Oceans Aquarium, Otto’s rescue story began 18 months ago when angler Koos Otto stepped onto what he thought was a mossy rock at Yzerfontein. When the rock moved – and opened its mouth – he realised it was a turtle, and called for help.

The Two Oceans Aquarium sent a rescue team and Otto, named after the man who found her, became part of the aquarium’s turtle rehabilitation programme.

Two Ocean’s vet Georgina Cole said Otto was dehydrated, cold and weak. The aquarium put the turtle in water that was slowly heated to warm her. She was unable to feed initially and was tube-fed.

“We don’t know what happened to Otto before she washed up on the rocks, and what happened that led to her washing up on the rocks, but she has been stable since day three,” Cole said at the time.

Hawksbill turtle numbers plummeted by more than 80 percent during the past century and although international trade in these turtles has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) since 1981, trade still continues.

In May last year the Philippine police arrested nine Chinese men on board a boat with 500 hawksbills, most of them dead. The poachers were sentenced to a year in jail.

According to WWF, there are just five hawksbill populations worldwide. Apart from being hunted, the turtles’ nesting sites are being lost as beaches where they lay their eggs are increasingly developed; they are caught in fishing nets and their eggs are dug up for eating.

Every two or three years, turtles return to the beaches where they were born to lay eggs in the sand. Global warming is an added threat as warmer temperatures produce more females. Researchers say even modest temperature changes – 1°C to 2°C – have the potential to alter the sex ratio significantly.

The Department of Environment Affairs attached a satellite transmitter, with a two-year battery life, to Otto’s shell so researchers could track her movements.

Aquarium spokeswoman Renée Leeuwner said the turtles had a built-in magnetic navigation system to get them on their way home.

“I did get a huge lump in my throat when Otto swam away, but it was because I was happy.”

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