The fight for survival: Turtles facing more and more threats from plastic filled oceans.

Ryan Nienaber

The fight for survival: Turtles facing more and more threats from plastic filled oceans.

This past week, we assisted the Two Oceans Aquarium with their Turtle Rescue Programme ( Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation) and successfully transported yet another turtle in need. Greenfish has been actively involved in this programme for the past few years. This week’s project involved the largest turtle we have had a direct hand in assisting- a sub-adult Hawks Bill Turtle. The turtle was found stranded between Struisbaai and Agulhas this past week.

Although super weak, our patient is currently stable. The X-rays showed no foreign matter in his system (plastics do not show up on X-rays) and we are now waiting for a green light from the blood tests done. At this age it is difficult to sex the turtle, so we are unsure to refer to it as a he or a she. (Sadly by the time of publishing this the turtle passed away due to internal infections suspected to be from plastic pollution.  This reiterates that animals in our oceans are dying unnecessarily.)

Another sub-adult turtle was rescued this week and appears stable.  This is truly an ocean ambassador and needs a special name for the story it will tell. To inspire people to create a better world where human intervention will not be needed for turtles and other marine animals to be respected.

As such, we will be running a naming competition via Instagram for this turtle, and will then document their road to recovery, rehabilitation, and release. We will keep you updated on this entire process.

Our goal is to raise R50 000.00 in donations for the purchase of a satellite tracking device. The information gathered from this tag will help raise awareness and assist in environmental decisions. Turtles are great indicators of the status of the ocean as they traverse a wide area. Turtles are impacted by all of the same factors that affect other sea species and ocean habitats. Therefore, the health of the sea turtle population is a direct reflection of the overall health of our oceans.

Yoshi the turtle is well known for her 41 000km journey from Africa to Australia which we understand was consistently tracked. She became a hero for ocean awareness.

Greenfish has set up a page for you to participate and all donations will be handed over as a lump sum after the drive ends. Don’t have any spare cash? Don’t worry you can still help (you can read more about this under ‘what can I do to help’).

The Two Oceans Turtle Rescue Programme has helped many turtles:

- 2019; 223 hatchlings, 3 sub-adults;

- 2020; 37 hatchlings, 10 adults and sub-adults (sadly, very few hatchlings were collected due to lockdown and not having people walking the beaches looking out for them); and

- 2021; 60 hatchlings, 6 adults/sub-adults so far.

There are 7 species of turtles in the world’s oceans. Five of these are found in South African oceans and all of these species are endangered. Two of these five species nest on the South African coastlines in  Of which 5 are found in SA waters (all endangered), 2 of which nest on the SA coastlines in Northern KwaZulu Natal:

  • The Loggerhead and Leatherback nest in South Africa; and
  • Green, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles visit our waters to feed as part of their migration journey.

Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles nest every 2-3 years, from October to December, in Northern KwaZulu Natal. After an incubation period of 55-60 days, the clutch (60-120 eggs) hatch. This is usually around January-March. If the temperature is, cooler the hatchlings will be male. If warmer, they will be female. This is called temperature-dependent sex determination. The hatchlings then swim into the Agulhas current and start moving south.

The hatchling standing season on our southern coastline is usually between March and June.

 Hatchlings are mainly stranded due to the following reasons:

  •  Dehydration; and
  •  Injury (including the consumption of plastics);

These hatchlings undergo 6-8 months of rehabilitation before they are ready to be released and carry on with their journey. Almost all of them are brought in by a member of the public.

Most turtles only reach sexual maturity at around 20-30 years old. So, each life matters with every successful release providing a significant boost to wild populations.

One of the biggest issues turtles faces is plastic pollution, ghost fishing netting, human interference, climate change and being caught in the by-catch during industrial fishing methods. Let us not forget all the natural predators in the ocean these guys need to sidestep in order to survive. 

Plastic, and especially single use plastics, are at the center of this (

Fish, turtles and other sea creatures are suffering from this plastic war. With most of the plastic in the ocean originating from land, we only have ourselves to blame. So, what can we do about this? The most effective way is by preventing these man-made hazards from ever entering the ocean habitats in the first place. This can only be done through us actively changing our behaviours and habits. We live in a new world where convenience is at our fingertips, and as a result, a throw-away culture has developed. However, we need not succumb to commercialism. The power of change lies within all consumers- they have the power dictate to the markets what they are and are not willing to accept and support. If we change our buying practices, behaviours and apply consumer pressures, we will see changes in how things are packaged and sold. 

70% of the rescued hatchlings this year had consumed micro plastics, a significant increase from 42% in previous years. Turtles, like all reptiles, have very slow metabolism. Plastic fragments that are digested may take a long time to pass (if they are small enough to do so). The animal experiences great pain no matter the result and may suffer from internal injuries.

The bottom line is that at the end of the day, it literally takes a single piece of plastic to kill an endangered sea turtle.

Ghost Fishing

A problem we face commonly in the industry is ghost fishing. What is ghost fishing? It is a major issue most often associated with mass industrial scale fishing methods such as nets, trawlers and longliners. This happens when gear is lost or abandoned at sea and continues to indiscriminately kill sea creatures long after its intended use.

A lost piece of floating fishing net adrift will become its own mini ecosystem. Goose Barnacles will begin to grow and attract crabs, tiny fish, jelly fish and other small ocean dwellers as they seek shelter from the open ocean. Hungry turtles are then drawn to the discarded net in search of food (jellyfish, fish, squid and seaweed). They then get entangled. An entangled turtle will, unfortunately, eventually die. In nature, as nothing goes to waste, other fish and marine mammals will be drawn to this ‘free food source’ and as a result they too will get entangled and die. This will simply continue to repeat itself and potentially kill sea creatures for decades at a time before anybody is even aware of it happening.

 What to do if you find a stranded sea turtle or marine animal? 

  • Make contact with the sea turtle rescue hotline: 083 300 1663;
  • Remember that these are wild animals and they may bite. So, if you are unsure, do not approach or touch them without guidance;
  • Do not put a stranded turtle back into the water;
  • Transport them in a tub, with air holes and place them on a dry towel;
  • Keep them out of direct sunlight and wind; and
  • Get the turtle to the nearest pick-up point so that they can be helped by the turtle rescue rehab as quickly as possible.

 So, where can you start making a difference after hearing about all of this? 

  • Change your plastic consumption behaviour;
  • Every person’s contribution helps: one water bottle less in the ocean makes a significant difference;
  • Share this with friends and family- news creates awareness which is the first step in creating change. It all adds up- one person at a time;
  • Be a turtle rescuer every day by looking out for turtles in need of help on our beaches and follow the recommended steps when assisting them;
  • Say no to single-use plastics; and
  • Donate if you can, rescue programmes are currently in desperate need of funds and no donation is too small. It costs approximately R5000 to rehabilitate a hatchling of 6-8 months and up to R50 000 a year to fully rehabilitate an adult turtle.

 On a lighter note, here are some fun facts about our beloved turtles: 

  • An adult Leatherback can weigh between 200-900kg;
  • Turtles lay eggs (called clutches) every 2-3 years;
  • A clutch can contain 60-120 eggs, with 3-6 clutches been laid per season;
  • There are 7 turtle species in the world;
  • Yoshi the turtle managed to swim from South Africa to Australia;
  • Hatchlings keep their flippers behind there backs to prevent having their flippers bitten by birds and fish;
  • Green turtles are vegetarians;
  • Hatchlings are positively buoyant and cannot dive down until they reach about 500g (6 months old); and
  • Let’s just be honest here- turtles are cool and everyone loves them!

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