Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation

One of ORP’s main objectives is to rescue and rehabilitate as many injured sea turtles as possible. Sea turtles often suffer devastating injuries from entanglement in or ingestion of marine debris, swallowing fishing hooks, boat strikes, or from being kept inappropriately as a pet, often in freshwater. Sadly we cannot save them all, but we do our best!

The Olive Ridley Project (ORP) operates two sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation facilities in the Maldives: The Marine Turtle Rescue Centre in Baa Atoll and a Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Centre in North Malé Atoll. We provide veterinary care and rehabilitation facilities for injured sea turtles rescued across the country.

Rescuing Injured Sea Turtles

Resort marine biologists, divers, snorkelers and boat crews find most of our patients entangled in marine debris or just floating on the surface. With injuries too severe for immediate release many of them would not survive without treatment.

The Olive Ridley Project Code of Conduct is readily and freely available to all resorts, local islands and marine biologists to improve how turtles are rescued by members of the public that find them. Our team often visits resorts to offer training to boat crews and staff on how best to rescue and release a turtle or identify when they are in need of care. Our resident veterinarian is always on call to receive video calls about the state of a rescued turtle and advise whether  it needs to come to the centre for assessment and treatment.

ORP Turtle Entanglment Protocol. Infogrpahic.
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Transporting Injured Sea Turtles

Turtle patient transport by sea plane, courtesy of TMA. Image.
Dr Claire, ORP’s Lead Vet, with our first flying sea turtle patient Takao, and the TMA pilots that transported him.

The Maldives is a very dispersed country, with islands separated by 871km from the most northern tip to the most southern. The majority of our patients now arrive at the Rescue Centre by seaplane. We have an official partnership with Trans Maldivian Airways who kindly transport our turtle patients free of charge. Other patients are usually transported via speedboat. We have had patients travel over 500km to reach us. When they are not in the vicinity of a seaplane we can fly them on a domestic flight.

Veterinary Care For Injured Sea Turtles

Turtle patient Eve a juvenile olive ridley turtle Maldives
Turtle patient Eve, a ghost gear victim.

Our sea turtle patients often require extensive supportive therapy to overcome their injuries, such as fluid therapy, antibiotic treatment and medications for their wounds. If their injuries are severe they may require surgery, for example to salvage or amputate a badly injured flipper. For the more fortunate sea turtles, time, proper nourishment, swimming rehabilitation or a course of antibiotics is enough for them to recover.

Lateral X-ray of turtle patient Ash. Image.
A lateral (side on) X-ray of turtle patient Ash showing her lung fields and some opaque material in her intestines.

All patients are x-rayed on admission as, in addition to external injuries, we commonly find ingested fishing hooks and other underlying health problems that can only be visualised using radiographs. We also take a small blood sample from our patients to check their level of hydration and look for any signs of infection. We can analyse this sample with a microscope to look at the cells directly, as well as measure the protein levels and the blood cell levels to check for anaemia.

Typical Injuries Caused By Ghost Gear Entanglement

Olive ridley turtle Coc0 was found washed up on the beach entangled in a ghost net in Maldives
Coco, an olive ridley, was found washed up on the beach on Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu where we are based, entangled in a ghost net.

The most frequent reason for sea turtles to be admitted to our Rescue Centre is entanglement in ghost gear or marine debris. Our patients often suffer devastating injuries as a result of entanglements. Fishing nets are made of very strong and durable plastic. As an entangled turtle struggles to free itself, the fishing net can tighten around its flippers, and sometimes around the neck too. Deep lacerations and partially or completely amputated flippers are common, in addition to exhaustion, starvation, dehydration and even predation by large fish or sharks. X-rays and ultrasound equipment also help us to diagnose internal issues such as gastrointestinal blockages, lung tears, trapped air or fluid, broken bones and even fish hooks.

Lacerations, Deep Wounds & Self-Amputation

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Graphic Image.
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Turtle patient Azura arrived at the Rescue Centre with severe flipper injuries from ghost gear entanglement.

Lacerations and deep wounds are typically treated with a combination of daily wound care, consisting of disinfection, application of topical treatments like antibiotic creams and manuka honey, and are dressed with waterproof bandages. They also often require daily removal of dead tissue, a process called debridement. This allows the healthy tissue to thrive and ensures the quickest possible healing times.

Unfortunately, if the bones are broken, it can be very challenging to salvage the limb and amputation is often required. Our aim is always to preserve as much limb as possible, however, due to where the ghost gear usually constricts, most turtles end up with a complete amputation at the shoulder joint. A significant proportion of our patients arrive at our Rescue Centre with flippers already missing or in the process of loss and therefore are unsalvageable even with medical interventions. Fortunately, three flippered turtles can do incredibly well back out in the ocean, which we know from witnessing three flippered turtles swimming very capably and even nesting in the wild.

Buoyancy Syndrome

Turtle patient Disco with his head above water. Image.
Turtle patient Disco suffers from buoyancy syndrome and is unable to dive.

Entangled turtles fortunate enough to be rescued, or ones that have managed to free themselves, often experience buoyancy problems caused by the stress of entanglement. 

When struggling to free themselves from entanglement, sea turtles can often end up with tears in their lung tissue and subsequent buoyancy problems. Sea turtles lack a diaphragm, meaning that all their organs are in contact with their lungs, and are in fact attached to their lungs by three ligaments – two on the left lung and one on the right.These ligaments are a point of weakness. When intense struggle and hyperventilation occurs, the ligaments can tear and cause air to leak out of the lungs and fill the entire body cavity, instantly stopping them from being able to dive.

Olive ridley turtle suffering from buoyancy syndrome, ORP Rescue Centre, Maldives
Turtle patient Florence was very buoyant but eventually recovered and was released.

Buoyancy syndrome will eventually lead to a slow death if not treated; turtles unable to dive cannot eat or rest properly and they are also at high risk of being predated upon. Unfortunately, there are many aspects of buoyancy syndrome that are not fully understood. We hope that we will be able to contribute to a greater understanding of this syndrome by investigations with our new endoscope.

Another cause of buoyancy can result from a gas build up that can get trapped in their gastrointestinal tract due to foreign object obstruction or severe infections. 

Treating Buoyancy Syndrome

Turtle patient Azura on a sea swim. Image.
Turtle patient Azura on a sea swim.

Thankfully, the majority of lung tears will heal without medical intervention, and the turtle will gradually be able to start diving, generally over a period of 3-6 months. Providing them with space, time, adequate nutrition and a deep tank, like the ones we have at our rescue and rehabilitation centres, is usually sufficient to allow them to recover. We also encourage diving by lowering their food in the water and by taking them out on sea swims – being in their natural habitat is very stimulating and will encourage many patients to give it their best shot! Being buoyant also means that quite a lot of their carapace can be out of the water and is at risk of drying out and flaking. In order to prevent this, we routinely cover them in a thin layer of vaseline.

Sea turtle vet Claire swimming with turtle patient Penny in the sea
Turtle patient Penny took more than two years to recover from her buoyancy problems. Seen here on a sea swim with Dr Claire.

Unfortunately, there are a small minority of patients that don’t heal properly or were perhaps too severely injured when rescued. The resulting scar tissue can be so extensive that the leaks do not resolve on their own and sea turtles cannot overcome their buoyancy. 

We are now in the possession of an endoscope that we hope will allow us to decipher which tears and leaks will heal without intervention and which may require further surgery to treat. Our intention is to fix them quickly so they can be released as soon as possible. 

When a previously buoyant patient can forage for their own food on the bottom of the tank and can comfortably rest there, we know they are ready to go back to the wild. However, for some buoyant patients this can take a very long time and we have had patients with us for over two years before they regained sufficient control of their buoyancy to return to the ocean.

Malnourished Sea Turtles

Thari suffered malnourishment due to ghost gear entanglement. Image.
Turtle patient Thari suffered malnourishment due to ghost gear entanglement and was severely underweight when she arrived at the Rescue Centre.

When a sea turtle has been entangled in ghost gear for many months it is common to suffer from severe malnutrition; when they are trapped they cannot dive to find food. This can lead to drastic weight loss, metabolic derangements and severe immunosuppression. An adult female sea turtle with a carapace length of 60cm centimeters normally weighs around 25 kilograms, yet we frequently admit adult patients who only weigh 12 to 15 kilograms. 

Turtle patient Harry with feeing tube in the tank. Image.
Turtle patient Harry with a feeding tube.

If a turtle is extremely malnourished or refuses to eat, we may surgically place a feeding tube in their oesophagus to allow us to manage their nutrition with minimal stress. If they are eating by themselves, we wean them back to feeding normally and gradually build up their weight. 

We feed the turtle patients around 3% of their body weight daily, depending on their condition. They eat a variety of fish such as tuna, snapper and jackfish; they can be a bit fussy with their food so we try to mix it up a bit and include crabs, jellyfish and lobster when possible.

Injuries Caused By Ingestion Of Marine Debris

Plastic pieces collected from hawksbill turtle pateint Ash's feces. Image.
Some of the plastic pieces found in Ash’s faeces.

Ingestion of plastic and marine debris is sadly very common during all life stages of sea turtles. Sometimes this plastic will pass through without causing an issue. Other times it can cause significant blockages and even full obstructions which can result in intestinal perforation, sepsis and ultimately death. Plastic ingestion is so common that we often find plastic being passed by our recovering and healthy patients, even if they were admitted for something completely unrelated, and even when many months have passed since they’ve been in the wild.

Injuries Caused By Ingestion of Fishing Hooks

X-ray showing fish hook lodged in turtle patient Blanc's oesophagus. Image.
X-ray showing the fish hook lodged in Blanc’s oesophagus.

While olive ridleys are predominantly encountered entangled in ghost gear in the Maldives, we do sometimes find them and other species having ingested large long-line fishing hooks, the kind that are used to catch tuna out in the open ocean. These will often be found lodged in their mouth or oesophagus, but unfortunately can also have passed much further down into their stomach or beyond. These hooks are incredibly sharp and will frequently perforate through their soft tissues, causing a huge amount of trauma and lead to infection. Thankfully, they are very quick and easy to diagnose with x-rays and this allows us to take swift action in removing them. All of our patients receive x-rays on admission as it is common for a sea turtle to show no outward signs of fish hook ingestion. 

Hawksbill and green sea turtles are quite commonly affected by fish hook ingestion too, but these tend to be smaller hooks which are commonly used for reef fishing. However, they can still cause significant damage.

Injuries Caused By Inappropriate Pet Keeping

Green turtle hatchling previously kept as pet getting help to breathe. Image.
Turtle patient Crush, a green hatchling, was previously kept as a pet.

Unfortunately it isn’t uncommon for baby sea turtles to be taken from their nest when hatching and kept as pets. Sea turtles have very unique diets and migratory patterns and it is incredibly difficult to mimic these needs in captivity. These hatchlings often end up indoors in tiny tanks and fed very inappropriate diets, which can lead to bone and shell malformations, dampened immune systems and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. They are also commonly kept in freshwater, which prevents their salt glands from maturing. This will eventually lead to salt balance issues that are frequently fatal.

Following captivity, hatchlings need very careful and specialised rehabilitation plans including gradual salt water therapy, space to develop their weakened muscles and appropriate diets with supplementation such as vitamin injections.

Sea Turtle Husbandry

Turtle patient Disco enjoying a spa day at ORP Turtle Rescue Centre. Image.
Turtle patient Disco enjoying a ‘spa day’.

Sea turtles have unique husbandry requirements in terms of their housing and environment, their diet, and also their cleaning. In the wild sea turtles will visit cleaning stations where small fish will bite off external parasites and algae, which keeps the turtle’s skin and shell in prime condition. In the Rescue and Rehabilitation Centres, we mimic this by scrubbing our patients with soft toothbrushes once every one to two weeks. This removes the dead skin cells and algae and also presents a great opportunity to weigh and examine the patients. Sea turtles can find being out of water very stressful, so we are always careful to minimise the time they spend out of the tank. Reducing stress in recovering wild animals is of the utmost importance.

Release of Turtle Patients

Our ultimate goal is to rehabilitate and release our patients as quickly as possible. However, we have strict release criteria before we make the decision to send a patient home. They must be able to dive and rest at the bottom of the tank with ease; they must be off of all medication; and they must be free of infection, disease or injury. 

Every turtle responds differently to captivity and sometimes we will make the decision to release patients early if they seem to be finding life in a tank particularly stressful. But, of course, we must be confident that their wounds will heal naturally in the sea and it is essential that they can dive. 

Olive ridleys are open ocean (pelagic)  turtles, so they are most commonly released from the boat so they can make their way to the deep sea as swiftly as possible. Greens and hawksbills, on the other hand, are quite faithful to their reefs, so we attempt to return them near to where they were found, or release them near reefs so they have abundant food and time to eat before they migrate back. Sometimes we will release our patients from the beach if they would be too stressed by a boat journey, or if they’re particularly large and difficult to transport.

Three Flippered Turtles In The Wild

A three flippered turtle swimming in the wild. Image.
A three flippered turtle swimming in the wild.

Turtles who have lost one flipper can learn to swim very well. They can go on to live a normal turtle life in the wild. Turtles with only three flippers have even been observed nesting! If they have lost two flippers, particularly on the same side of their body, their chance for survival in the ocean is sadly very slim. We try to find “forever homes” for our double amputee patients in carefully selected aquariums around the world.

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