70 years of helping people to care for our ocean

Rehabilitated hawksbill turtles released in iSimangaliso Wetland Park

By: Ann Kunz

On 30 November, two rehabilitated Hawksbill turtles were released back into the ocean at Mabibi within iSimangaliso’s Coastal Forest section. “These animals are listed as critically endangered and every saved life makes a very real and valid difference,” said Dr Anis Karodia, interim CEO of the iSimangaliso Authority.

The two turtles, named Moana, and Hei-hei by their rescuers, were brought to uShaka Sea World in August and their survival is nothing short of miraculous and thanks to the excellent care they received by dedicated staff. Their remarkable recovery coupled with the warmer weather means that the timing is perfect for release.

“The past few months have been incredibly busy for the turtle rehabilitation facility at uShaka Sea World, we have received several stranded animals and the animal health and husbandry teams have been working very hard to help these animals through their rehabilitation,” said Riaan Boshoff, uShaka Sea World.

The turtle’s stories

Moana, estimated to be around a year of age, was washed up on the shore near uShaka Marine World. “She was picked up by a surfer and brought to Sea World as she was too weak to swim. Hawksbill turtles of Moana’s size are not usually found so close to shore,” said Riaan. She was dehydrated, underweight and lethargic and had lesions and excessive algae on her carapace, which suggested that she had been ‘struggling’ for a while. Prognosis was poor. Moana was initially placed in a very shallow fresh water bath that was heated. The fresh water helped with rehydration and the warmer temperature would be what she would be used to in the ocean.

Fluids were administered daily as Moana was not able to eat on her own. Antibiotics were also administered and Moana was tube fed. About 10 days after arrival Moana started to feed on her own and grew steadily stronger able to dive and feed readily on her own. Having gained 110g since arrival, she passed initial pre-release examinations and was deemed strong, healthy and ready for release!

Hei-hei was stranded in East London and transferred to the quarantine facility at uShaka Sea World a short while later for rehabilitation. Initial assessment revealed that she was underweight and dehydrated, and not eager to feed. She was housed in a shallow pool so that she could get to the surface for air with minimal effort. Supportive treatment was administered and a series of diagnostics were carried out to determine the reason she stranded.

A few days later, Hei-hei showed interest in food and started feeding. The rehabilitation team worked with her daily, encouraging her to feed more frequently and on a wider variety to get her strength up. Hei-hei recovered incredibly well and passed initial pre-release examinations.

iSimangaliso – a refuge for turtles

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, renowned for many attributes including biodiversity and its five major interlinking ecosystems, provides a regular safe haven for the release of rehabilitated marine species. Amongst these ecosystems are the spectacular coral reefs off Sodwana Bay and the Coastal Forest section of the park, which provide shelter to myriad sea life, notably five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles. iSimangaliso’s reefs form part of an extensive marine protected area, where habitat destruction and harvesting are minimal threats to the turtles visiting our Park. With the numerous sheltered inshore reefs and the protection afforded by a Marine World Heritage Site, Mabibi represents a safe release site for small turtles.

Turtles are threatened worldwide by human impact. Globally, threats to turtle survival include habitat loss and degradation, wildlife trade, collection of eggs and meat for consumption, incidental capture in commercial and subsistence fisheries (bycatch), climate change and pollution. Diving at Sodwana Bay or Mabibi offers a great opportunity to spot one or more of the five sea turtle species that occur in these protected waters.

iSimangaliso’s shores are also the last significant breeding site of leatherback and loggerhead turtles in Africa. With a legacy of over 60 years of turtle research and conservation along its well protected shores – the longest running in the world – every effort is being made by iSimangaliso with its partners SAAMBR (incorporating uShaka Sea World) and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to ensure the survival of as many individuals as possible.

Turtle tours operate in iSimangaliso from November to March each year through licensed operators and provide the opportunity for Park visitors to witness the miracle of egg laying and hatching of the Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles on the iSimangaliso beaches. Tours depart from St Lucia, Cape Vidal, Sodwana Bay, Mabibi, Manzengwenya and Bhanga Nek.

Visit the iSimangaliso website  for more information on iSimangaliso’s turtle concessions.