‘RED LADY’ OF THE SEA
Long-suffering turtle’s tough 365 days from entanglement to recovery raises hope for her species
The resilience of a loggerhead turtle, along with ongoing rehabilitation since being rescued from a dumped fishing net in the Western Cape, could lead to her contributing to the species’ population.
About a year ago a loggerhead turtle weighing about 50kg was discovered ashore along the coast of the Western Cape town of Gansbaai, entangled in an abandoned fishing net weighing roughly what she did.
A dozen or so people helped to get her from the beach to safety.
Now, just more than a year later, after two surgeries and nearly 600 tablets plus 3.5 litres of medication, the turtle named Nobomvu is still in a slow current towards recovery in Cape Town.
Loosely translated from isiXhosa, “Nobomvu” means “the red lady” – a suitable name for the turtle because tiny living micro-organisms gave her shell a red tint.
Two Oceans Aquarium conservation coordinator Talitha Noble told DM168 last week that Nobomvu was still in an effective turtle intensive care unit, which consisted of temperature-controlled tanks indoors and others beneath shade cloth on the aquarium’s roof.
Among her fellow patients in for rehabilitation was Bob, an endangered green turtle that has been cared for there since 2014, when he was discovered in poor health with a wound to the shell near his abdomen.
Contributing to the turtle population
If Nobomvu’s condition improves, she may end up in the same “ward” as Bob – a tank visible to aquarium visitors.
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The goal is to get Nobomvu to full health and release her back into the ocean. She is a sexually mature female that can lay eggs. It is difficult to estimate the exact age of a turtle, but it is thought Nobomvu could be about 20 years old and possibly live until about 80. “She could contribute massively to the sea turtle population,” Noble explained.
Plastic, starvation and ghost gear
Loggerhead turtles are vulnerable to becoming endangered.
The World Wildlife Fund said that, compared with other turtles, they were less likely to be hunted for their shell or meat.
They face other problems, though, according to the fund. For example, as by-catch, which is the accidental capture of marine animals in fishing gear. It is “a serious problem for loggerhead turtles because they frequently come in contact with fisheries”.
Female leatherback and loggerhead turtles move from water to land and lay eggs on the shoreline towards the end of the year close to the Mozambique border.
Noble said these eggs hatch around January and hatchlings make their way to the sea and drift out in the warm Agulhas current, which slows down along the Western Cape coastline and gets colder.
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The young turtles, each weighing only a few grams, face several challenges – dwindling food supplies owing to overfishing; they may ingest microplastics; they can become hypothermic and they can get caught up in ghost, or abandoned, fishing gear.
In the case of Nobomvu, the 50kg net she got stuck in hints at just how devastating and lasting the impact of a single piece of ghost gear can be.
Saving stranded hatchlings
The Two Oceans Aquarium website explains how it is involved in trying to save hatchlings: “With the support of an extensive network of organisations and volunteers along the Western Cape’s coast, and many incredible donors, hundreds of sea turtles have been saved, reared to full strength and released back into the wild – with an incredible 85% success rate.”
This year, Noble said, 155 hatchlings were rescued from the Western Cape coastline and were taken in by the aquarium for rehabilitation.
“We provide specialised nutritional care,” she said, adding that “good-quality water” and food consisting of proteins, vitamins and vegetables were important.
It cost more than R8,000 to care for an individual hatchling over six to nine months, after which they were released into the ocean again, “bigger and better”.
Other turtles, much larger and older than hatchlings, were also rescued and, when possible, released.
In the case of Nobomvu, Noble said she initially responded well to treatment. But then an underlying issue was picked up.
“She had a really bad bone infection affecting her right shoulder.
“She was in pain and wasn’t using her flipper,” Noble said.
Medication was administered to try to treat this. However, another setback was identified.
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“Inside the infection, a lump of tissue had grown,” Noble said.
This prevented the medication from working properly.
“She’s been on medication for a year, and she developed a skin condition,” Noble said. “She is the definition of long-suffering.”
For example, each time Nobomvu was injected, she had to be restrained.
Yet despite the tough time she had been through, she was showing incredible resilience and Noble was adamant there was reason for hope.
“Over the last month we’ve seen an improvement. There’s fresh bone tissue in her shoulder… [but] there’s still a long road to recovery.”
When she is eventually ready for release, Nobomvu will hopefully be fitted with a satellite tracker, as were three recently released juvenile loggerhead turtles.
Noble described turtles as “such remarkable ancient creatures that we don’t really understand”.
Even though they can breathe air, turtles only really make their way to land to lay their eggs. By tracking them, more knowledge could be gained about where and how they moved about and how those passages could be better protected.
Deep strength and hope
Noble said her work with turtles left her feeling “a great sense of responsibility and a great sense of hope”.
Reptiles did not make much sound and it was difficult to read them. “But I tell you what, each one is different.”
With Nobomvu, Noble had noticed “a strength and maturity” in her.
“I felt she was tired over the year. Drained. But she has this really deep strength that’s helped her survive to this point.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.