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World Turtle Day is celebrated on 23 May. The NSRI collaborates with major aquariums for marine animal rescues, including turtles, and has a duty of care for these special creatures.

This image of a loggerhead turtle was taken by NSRI CEO Dr Cleeve Robertson.

Sea turtles have been around for over 200 million years. According to, they are adapted to living in the sea with flipper-shaped limbs and streamlined bodies but must rise to the surface to breathe air. Five species of turtles are found in South African waters: The leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) turtles nest on the beaches of northern KwaZulu-Natal; the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is a non-breeding resident, while the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) turtles occur as strays in our waters.

Unfortunately, turtles are vulnerable to human impact. Evolution has trained them to travel along set routes, returning to where they were born to mate and lay their eggs. Pressures on turtles include entanglement with fishing gear or accidental capture, plastic pollution and, historically, population declines due to the harvesting of eggs and adults for meat (which is now illegal).

South Africa has two Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) dedicated to protecting important feeding grounds for these ancient reptiles, especially the leatherback turtle, which is critically endangered.

The NSRI, too, is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (14) to conserve the oceans and has been involved in 11 turtle rescues since 2019.

“The NSRI assists in the collecting and transport of turtles that are found ill or injured along our coastline,” says NSRI CEO Dr Cleeve Robertson. “We send them to one of the two aquariums – Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town or uShaka Marine World in Durban – where they are assessed, treated and rehabilitated until they are well enough for release.”

Cleeve has participated in several turtle releases. “It’s wonderful to release them back into nature. I never realised how many loggerheads, greens and hawksbills are out there, and it's refreshing to see that turtles are a big part of our ecosystem. They’re great photo subjects for underwater photography; the greens are the prettiest and my favourite subjects. The loggerheads have a huge head and neck and are a little grumpy, but still good to see underwater. It’s always special to see a turtle underwater or on the surface, there’s something mystical about them!”

If you find a turtle in distress on a beach:

• Do not return the turtle to the sea

• Do not remove any barnacles from its shell

• If it’s a large turtle, remain close and call one of the numbers below

• If it’s a hatchling, place in a small box and call one of the numbers below:

Cape Town: Two Oceans Aquarium on 021 418 3823 / 083 326 1604 (A/H)

Durban: uShaka Sea World on 031 328 8222

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Retire in peace, servant of the sea…

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