Dr Deborah Robertson-Andersson
It’s that time of the year when the stormy sea conditions off the Cape coast line wash juvenile (and occasionally sub-adult) turtles onto the beaches of the Western Cape where they are discovered by concerned members of the public. These turtles; many the size of your hand, are hatchlings and are washing up as they are suffering from hypothermia. The turtles are generally loggerheads although you may find leatherbacks and even a slightly larger sub-adult green sea turtle.
Loggerhead Caretta caretta turtles are found in temperate and tropical waters of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans and don’t fare well in the cold waters around the Cape. Adult Loggerhead females (76 – 102 cm) nest on Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal beaches from November to January. They lay batches of eggs at 15 day intervals with about 500 eggs being laid by each female. The eggs hatch after 60 – 70 days and the juveniles drift in the Agulhas current.
Leatherback Dermochelys coriacea turtles are found in and around the tropical seas, and oceanic islands of the Atlantic, Pacific, & Indian Oceans. Adult females weighing in at 900 kg and 1.5 – 1.7 m in length lay about 1000 eggs in batches of 100 – 200 at 9 – 10 day intervals every 3 – 5 years in northern KwaZulu Natal from November to January. The juveniles which (50 – 60 mm) hatch after 70 days, only 1 in every 1000 will survive to adulthood. The leather back turtle usually only lays its eggs between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. However the St Lucia greater wetland park is 600 km south of this, and the temperatures at this latitude are usually too low at night for the eggs to survive. St Lucia sand is not made of conventional quartzite, it is laden with metallic titania or ilmeniite and this conducts and retains heat, essential for the turtle hatchlings.
From about April to August we start to see turtles washing up on Cape beaches. Just like humans suffering from hypothermia the turtles need help. Once you have found a turtle on the beach, the first thing you should do is to remove the turtle from the water and place it in a dry container where it cannot drown. Keep the container at room temperature so that the turtle warms up slowly. In many cases the turtles are suffering from hypothermia and are so weak that they cannot lift their heads. If they cannot do this then they are unable to breathe as they need to lift their heads out of the water to breathe.
Then call the Two Oceans Aquarium on +27 (0)21 418 3823. Please tell them where the turtle was found and the size and description of the turtle, so that they can prepare a rehabilitation tank for them. At the end of the stranding season and when all turtles recovered have been rehabilitated, the turtles will be sent to uShaka Marine World in Durban, where they will be released back into the wild. You can read more on this here.
Please note: This advice is only valid for marine turtle strandings around the Western Cape. Should you come across a turtle elsewhere around the South African coast, please contact the local aquarium or animal rehabilitation centre closest to you.
There are also reports that turtles are being offered for sale. All species of turtles are protected under both the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), also called the World Conservation Union and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It is illegal for any part of a turtle to be bought or sold. If you are offered one for sale please contact either your local law enforcement or the Two Oceans Aquarium.