uShaka Sea World releases leatherback turtle

The juvenile leatherback turtle, ready for release

When uShaka Sea World staff received a call on 21 April from staff at Two Oceans Aquarium, informing them that they were flying a juvenile leatherback turtle to Durban the following day, they were eager to assist as this was to be the first leatherback entrusted to their care. 

The young turtle was found washed up on a beach in the Cape and immediately taken to the Two Oceans Aquarium. There were no visible signs of trauma or physical limitations, so precautionary antibiotics were administered and immediate plans were made to fly the turtle to Durban in preparation for his return to the ocean. 

Juvenile turtles are not naturally found in the icy waters of the Cape and need to be released in the warmer waters of KwaZulu-Natal, where they are commonly found. uShaka Sea World receives approximately 15 to 20 stranded juvenile loggerhead turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) from the Cape each year.

The striking leatherback arrived at uShaka Sea World at midday on Wednesday 23 April, and after an examination by resident veterinarian Francois Lampen, was given the all-clear for release the next morning.

Although stranded juvenile turtles generally spend a few months or years in the uShaka Sea World rehabilitation centre or Turtle Lagoon before being released in order to give them a better chance of survival, leatherback turtles, which are not able to swim in reverse and do not cope in a confined area, are released as soon as possible after stranding.

uShaka Sea World staff set off for the two-hour journey before sunrise on Thursday 24 April to release the young turtle 15 miles off Durban in the Mozambique current.

Even though there are 100 000 leatherback turtles worldwide, their survival is threatened because geographically distinct populations do not breed with other populations, even though they enjoy a cosmopolitan global range.

Gareth Leisegang with the turtle just before its release into the Mozambique channel

Leatherback turtles are the largest of all turtle species and can easily be differentiated from other turtles by their lack of a bony shell, instead of which they have a thick, leathery skin with seven distinct ridges. Hatchlings and juveniles have white blotches on their carapaces.

Young leatherback turtles face many predators in their early lives. Eggs may be predated upon by ghost crabs, monitor lizards, mongooses and shore birds. Once in the ocean, young leatherbacks face predation from cephalopods, sharks, and various large fish and seabirds. Adult leatherback turtles have few natural predators once they mature, apart from humans. 

In recent years leatherback populations worldwide have plummeted. Adults subsist almost entirely on jellyfish and although they help control jellyfish populations, their preference for jellyfish makes them highly susceptible to the threat of garbage in the ocean. They have the highest risk of encountering and ingesting plastic which they mistake for jellyfish. Of all seven species of turtles worldwide, nearly 50% of leatherbacks recently studied had plastic bags or cellophane lodged in their stomachs.

Another threat leatherbacks face is being caught in nets laid by commercial fisheries or by long-liners, where it is believed they are attracted by chemical lights that resemble jellyfish.

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