Heidi The Flying Turtle

Heidi, our most widely loved sea turtle patient, has been at the Rescue Centre since 2018, un-releasable due to one missing and one non-functional front flipper. Thanks to a concerted team effort, he was finally able to fly to his new forever home in Plymouth, where he will continue to delight people with his large personality, and also educate them about the dangers of ghost gear.

Last Updated: June 2, 2023

Heidi’s Story

Turtle patient Heidi in his tank. Image.

Heidi was an adult male olive ridley sea turtle who was admitted to the Marine Turtle Rescue Centre in April 2018. He was rescued from South Malé Atoll with deep entanglement injuries to both of his front flippers.

Heidi achieved celebrity status in the four and a half years he was with us. Thanks to his cheeky personality, he gained many followers and adoptive parents over the years.

It is with a heavy heart that we bring you the unfortunate news of Heidi’s passing. Heidi’s injuries resulted in the the loss of his front left flipper and his remaining front right flipper suffered untreatable damage, rendering it non-functional. With only two back flippers remaining, Heidi was effectively a double amputee. This hampered his ability to navigate adverse weather and rough currents in the water, as well as put him at greater risk of predation – a significant disadvantage meant that Heidi could not be released in the wild.

Heidi’s medical history

Heidi's left front flipper deteriorating after suffering from entanglement wounds. Image.
Heidi’s left front flipper deteriorating after suffering from entanglement wounds.

When Heidi arrived in 2018, he had deep entanglement wounds to his two front flippers with bone exposure. Since he could move his flippers well, we treated his wounds and believed that both flippers would heal. However, his left front flipper began to show signs of deterioration and in May 2018, this flipper had to  be amputated since it lost all blood supply and sensation.

Heidi recovered well from his surgery and swam fine with just 3 flippers. But soon after, Heidi’s use of his right front flipper was reduced, which indicated that the entanglement wounds had healed in a way that hampered the flipper’s movement. In addition to this, his X-rays showed a bone infection in the right shoulder. Both of these afflictions together reduced Heidi’s chance at using this flipper normally. As feared, the flipper eventually stopped showing any movement at all. This essentially left Heidi with only two functional flippers – both at the back.

Was Heidi a male or a female turtle?

Heidi's tail is visible during a routine sea swim. Image.
Heidi’s tail is visible during a routine sea swim.

When Heidi arrived at the Rescue Centre, he was 65 cm long and didn’t have much of a tail. This led us to assume that Heidi was a girl. However, over time, the tail grew an unusual amount for a female turtle and it was confirmed by ultrasound that Heidi was in fact a boy!

Quick tip: You can tell the sex of a sea turtle by looking at their tail. Male turtles, after reaching sexual maturity, will develop long tails, which may even extend past the hind flippers. Female turtles on the other hand, have a short tail, which generally doesn’t extend more than 10 cm (four inches) past the edge of the carapace (shell).

What is Heidi’s personality like?

Heidi patiently receives his routine spa treatment from Dr. Minnie. Image.
Heidi patiently receives his routine spa treatment from Dr. Minnie.

Heidi’s most well known trait was his stellar appetite! Once he was back to full health, he never missed a meal. His mobility in water was equally impressive, despite his lack of working front flippers. He would often do full back flips and barrel rolls to grab food, delighting everyone. We never found anything he wouldn’t eat, be it crabs, fish innards or barnacles, and he once even tried to bite a waterhen that landed on the surface of his tank (no harm came to that waterhen).

As with any wild animal, Heidi did not enjoy being handled, but he was always very tolerant of clinical procedures. In fact, such was his demeanour that he was once even a blood donor for a critically ill patient who needed a blood transfusion to fix life threatening anaemia. 

Above all, Heidi has been a true advocate of the resilience of sea turtles and by being such an engaging patient, he has allowed our Rescue Centre team to teach many guests and visitors about the plight of sea turtles and the dangers of ghost gear in particular.

Why was heidi not released in the wild?

Heidi's one front flipper is amputated, and the other has no functionality. Image.
Heidi’s one front flipper is amputated, and the other has no functionality.

Although Heidi still had one front flipper, it has no functionality due to the damage caused by ghost gear entanglement – effectively this means he was a double amputee. This gave him very little chance of survival in the wild because he could turn easily, navigate currents or adverse weather, and he wouldn’t be able to avoid predators out in the wild. However, because he was able to dive and swim well (expressing normal natural sea turtle behaviour), we thought he will do very well in the more controlled environment of an aquarium, where he would have a lot more space to navigate, but none of the risks that would be present to him in the wild.

Three-flippered sea turtles: Sea turtles can survive in the wild with only three flippers as many sporadic sightings of turtles with such injuries show – they learn to adapt to a missing limb just like humans. For example, if they are missing a front flipper, they learn to compensate by using their opposite back flipper when swimming.

How Difficult was it to find heidi a new home?

Heidi in his special crate, ready for his journey to Plymouth. Image.
Heidi in his special crate, ready for his journey to Plymouth.

It took us many years to successfully find somewhere for Heidi to move to – with involvement from our vets, Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu guests and former ORP volunteers, all of whom suggested places that may be able to accommodate Heidi. After many rejections and multiple dead ends, the team heard about the National Aquarium in Plymouth.

We reached out to the director of conservation and made a case for the lovely Heidi. With their strong focus on education and conservation, and the sad passing of their former elderly resident sea turtle, the National Marine Aquarium Plymouth were perfectly placed to offer Heidi a forever- home.

However, that was only the first hurdle. After that, there was a remarkable amount of paperwork to complete. To move an endangered species between countries, both countries need a permit (one to export, the other to import) from the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) but this isn’t as simple as it sounds! 
Once the permits were finally in place we had to arrange to move Heidi – you can’t just book a seat on a plane for a turtle. Luckily British Airways and Trans Maldivian Airways came to Heidi’s rescue and kindly transported him as a VIP guest (free of charge). In addition, Coco Palm’s wonderful carpentry team fashioned him his own travelling crate to fly in style. Our veterinary and management team worked extremely hard over many months to finalise the transfer details with the help of the team at the National Marine Aquarium.

What was Heidi’s life like at the aquarium?

Heidi in his tank at the National Marine Aquarium Plymouth. Image.
Heidi in his tank at the National Marine Aquarium Plymouth.

Heidi’s new tank was seven times bigger than his tank at the Marine Turtle Rescue Centre. He shared his new home with other marine species that he would have naturally come across in the wild. This was a much more natural environment for him. Heidi even had cleaner fish that kept his shell lovely and clean rather than having to be scrubbed every week. Natural surroundings in the tank, such as rocks and corals, reduce overall stress by keeping Heidi’s life enriched. 

Initially, Heidi settled in well at his new home. However, after several months of treatment and care, Heidi was diagnosed with additional significant medical issues related to his ghost gear entanglement. After all therapeutic options to treat these newly diagnosed conditions were exhausted without success, the aquarium made the difficult decision to end Heidi’s suffering in May 2023 and euthanised him. As difficult as this news is to convey, we will continue to learn from Heidi’s injuries and disease course so that future patients can benefit from his time under our care.

Heidi was one of our most widely loved patients, delighting almost everyone with his personality. We are grateful to his adopters, who continued to support him through his care. Heidi meant a great deal to you, as he did to our team here at the Olive Ridley Project, but we take peace in knowing that he is no longer suffering.