World Turtle Day: turtle hatchling killed by plastic pollution

World Turtle Day, celebrated annually on 23 May, celebrates these noble animals and encourages people to take action to help protect them from the perils of plastic.

Turtles have been around for over 200-million years and are some of the most ancient reptiles on the planet, yet their survival is being threatened by ocean pollution.

Pip the turtle and some of the bits of plastic that were in his gut. (Image: uShaka Sea World)

Five turtle species are found in South African waters: leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), loggerhead (Caretta caretta), green (Chelonian mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea). 

Unfortunately these remarkable animals are especially susceptible to the effects of consuming marine debris due to downward-facing spines in their throats that prevent regurgitation.

Plastic bags, bottles, balloons, packaging materials and food wrappers all contribute to ocean pollution. While large plastics are a substantial pollutant, over time these plastics break down into smaller, even more deadly pieces. Given that turtles include jellyfish in their diets, they mistake plastic bags for the ocean delicacy.

uShaka Sea World recently experienced the fatal effects that small pieces of plastic can have on turtles after a loggerhead hatchling named Pip was brought into the rehabilitation centre in March 2017.

Pip was rescued and brought to uShaka by a member of the public after stranding on a beach in Scottburgh on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast. He was so weak upon arrival that he was left to rest before the medical team began investigating the probable cause of his compromised state.

The team was not unduly surprised when, a few days later, he passed several pieces of plastic. Despite all the care the team gave Pip, he died within two weeks of arrival. A necropsy revealed that the turtle still had more pieces of plastic and signs of an infection in his gut.

Each year tiny turtle hatchlings like Pip start their incredible journey from the beaches of northern KwaZulu-Natal where they are born, hitching a ride on one of the great ocean waterways, the Agulhas current, that sweeps down the east coast of Africa.

These tiny animals face enormous challenges from natural predators such as sharks, seabirds and fish, so it's our collective responsibility to make sure that we do the best we can to reduce man-made threats such as plastic pollution.

How you can help turtles

  • Take your own shopping bag to the supermarket to avoid buying single-use bags that end up being discarded
  • Don’t litter
  • Don’t release balloons into the air as they travel far and can end up in the oceans where they might be consumed by sea turtles that mistake them for food

Thandi the turtle mascot, Napoleon the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) and aquarist Malini Pather. (Image: uShaka Sea World)

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