The Flying Turtles
On 9 August 2016 our team of Seamarc marine biologists, led by Sebastien Stradal (MDC Manager at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru), proudly launched its newest Turtle Rehabilitation Programme, “The Flying Turtles”.
Four Olive Ridley turtles – Kerry, Zahiya, La Petite and Peggy – made Maldivian and European history as they travelled by plane from Four Seasons Resort Landaa Giraavaru in the Maldives to begin a new life at Belgium’s Pairi Daiza Zoo. In 2017, two of the turtles will move to their permanent residence at AquaZoo Friesland in the Netherlands.
This is the first time that live sea turtles have been flown overseas from the Maldives for conservation and research purposes, and we think they are the only Olive Ridley species actually living in Europe.
Rescue from ‘Ghost’ Fishing Nets
All four turtles were originally found floating in Maldivian waters and required rehabilitation for buoyancy syndrome and other ailments – dehydration, emaciation and poor digestion. The turtles were at Landaa Giraavaru receiving care for between 1 and 4 years and now all are in good body condition, however, none regained the ability to dive and regulate their buoyancy normally. Additionally, three of the turtles are missing flippers due to interactions with ghost nets, sadly a common issue facing Olive Ridley sea turtles. These ailments mean the four turtles are considered non-releasable as they would not be able to feed properly and avoid predation leaving them vulnerable.
Pairi Daiza Zoo and AquaZoo Friesland will provide the turtles with the life-long care they require including large exhibit environments and medical treatments. This medical care will help form the basis to understanding why Olive Ridleys are highly prone to buoyancy syndrome after entanglements in ghost nets, allowing Seamarc and the Maldivian Sea Turtle Conservation Programme to better help future rescued turtles.
As a rehabilitation facility it is our goal to rescue, rehabilitate and release healthy animals back into their natural environment to help safeguard the species from depleting population numbers. Although Kerry, Peggy, Zahiya and La Petite are not returning to their native habitat, the turtles will serve as ambassadors to their wild counterparts by educating visitors to both facilities of the serious plight of sea turtles.
Meet Our Four Flying Turtles
Zahiya (juvenile) – Zahiya arrived for rehabilitation at Landaa Giraavaru on 26 March 2012 after being found floating near the island. Upon arrival, Zahiya was underweight, suffering from buoyancy syndrome, and covered in a thick layer of algae, all suggesting Zahiya had been ill and floating for a considerable amount of time. After observation, the team also noticed the turtle had frequent “ticks” or involuntary movements of the head and was uncoordinated when swimming. Throughout Zahiya’s care, the turtle required tube feedings and supplemental fluid to offset a poor appetite. Due to Zahiya’s condition, this turtle would not be a suitable candidate for release.
Peggy (juvenile) – Peggy was found floating by Marine Biologists at Kuramathi Island Resort in North Male Atoll on 25 August 2014. Upon arrival at Kuda Huraa, Peggy was dehydrated, underweight and had an abundance of algae, all suggesting Peggy had been floating for a long period of time. Peggy was already missing the left front flipper, had damage to the carapace and recent lacerations to the right front flipper; injuries presumably due to entanglement in a ghost net. After being stabilised, Peggy was transferred to Landaa Giraavaru where she finished the rehabilitation process and was treated for a fungal infection of the carapace. Peggy never regained the ability to dive and releasing her was not possible.
Kerry (female) – Kerry was found floating on 14 September 2014 in the lagoon at Taj Exotica, South Male Atoll. Kerry had no serious injuries except a partially missing rear right flipper from an old and healed injury. Kerry suffered from buoyancy syndrome and had a pronounced list (lean) to the right. To correct this issue, Kerry was fitted with a weight to help balance her out and received physical therapy. Throughout her care, Kerry had a very sensitive digestive system and required a diet free of shells, bones and skin; but despite this, she was always eager at meal times, which gave the team the perfect opportunity to encourage Kerry to be more active.
La Petite (juvenile) – La Petite was found floating on 21 September 2015 near Hulhudhoo, Baa Atoll by Fanny Couture, the resident Coral Biologist at Landaa Giraavaru. La Petite already had an amputated left front flipper, abrasions to the carapace, swelling of the left front flipper and recent deep lacerations. In addition to suffering from buoyancy syndrome, La Petite arrived with a prolapsed cloaca, often caused by impactions (intestinal blockage) or severe dehydration associated with stranding events. La Petite was treated for the potential impaction but showed signs of a normal functioning digestive system shortly after arrival. The prolapsed cloaca required intensive treatment to ensure the tissue remained viable; this was done with honey wraps and rehydrating the turtle while removing bones, shells and skin from the turtle’s diet.
To aid in La Petite’s rehabilitation, on 16 January 2016, La Petite was transferred to the Atoll Marine Centre in Lhaviyani Atoll and placed in their sea pen. This gave La Petite additional space in an open ocean environment but still ensured the turtle’s safety and well-being. La Petite returned to Landaa Giraavaru for the remainder of the rehabilitation process.
How Do You Transport Sea Turtles?
Specially designed crates were built specifically for each turtle to ensure both their safety and comfort during the journey. With the help of Landaa Kids Club and many of the Four Seasons’ staff, the boxes were transformed into beautiful works of art complete with hand prints and sea turtle designs.
Since sea turtles are marine reptiles, special attention was given to ensure the Flying Four remained wet and warm (but not too hot!). Each turtle was placed on a wet pad in their crate, their skin and shell were covered in a thick layer of Vaseline and eye drops were administered to keep their eyes wet.
The turtles left Landaa Giraavaru after a warm farewell ceremony attended by staff and guests, and travelled by dhoni (local boat) with our Turtle Biologist, Jamie Fisher, to Malé Airport. After a while, the turtles settled into their crates for the journey while Jamie ensured the turtles were comfortable; Zahiya even took a nap! Upon arrival at Malé Airport, the turtles were coated again with Vaseline and eye drops were reapplied before boarding the next flight to Dubai with Sebastien Stradal and Stephanie Jessen (AquaZoo Friesland Head Keeper and Curator). Inside the cargo hold, the turtles were carefully positioned so as to keep all the box air holes free, allowing them to breathe comfortably. Although planes are notorious for being quite chilly, heaters in the cargo hold were used to keep the turtles warm throughout the flight, at a minimum temperature of 25°C.
Upon arrival in Dubai, Stephanie and Sebastien were able to check on the turtles at the Emirates Cargo Mega Terminal and again apply more Vaseline and eye drops to keep them from becoming too dry until the time came for them to board for the final leg of the journey to their new home. As the temperature in Dubai during the day and night ranges between 36°C and 45°C, all live animals are transported in a special air-conditioned container on the short trip from the cargo area to the aircraft.
After clearance at Belgium Airport, the turtles were loaded in a truck for their final destination. After 50 minutes of transport from Brussels, the turtles finally reached Pairi Daiza.
All four turtles arrived in excellent condition and were swimming in their new habitats later that evening. Zahiya and Kerry were put together in their new exhibit as they are friends and able to live together.
The next day was filled with veterinary check-ups including x-rays, blood sampling, weight and a good scrubbing. La Petite and Peggy happily accepted their first meal while Kerry and Zahiya were a little more hesitant in their new environment. We look forward to following Kerry, Zahiya, Peggy and La Petite as they settle into their new life!
The Turtles’ New Homes
Pairi Daiza Zoo is a Zoological and Botanical Garden Complex located southwest of Brussels (Belgium) close to the French border in the province of Hainaut. It is widely recognised as one of the best zoos in Europe. The animal park was originally opened in 1993 as a bird garden, and after continued expansion is now home to more than 5000 animals.
In 2015, Pairi Daiza Zoo welcomed more than 1.8 million visitors. This very high number will allow information and education regarding these endangered animals to be spread rapidly. We hope that people will be mobilised to fight against marine pollution (the major threat for Olive Ridley turtles) and become involved with conservation efforts to increase populations.
AquaZoo Friesland is located along the natural waterways in the north of the Netherlands, close to the city of Leeuwarden in the province of Friesland. This Zoological Park is specialised in aquatic animals and large natural habitats in order to offer the best for their residents. Educating the public about conserving aquatic animals is also an important part of the zoo’s daily activities and programmes, and AquaZoo will tell the story of our turtles to help spread awareness to future generations.
This project would never have seen the light of day without the great support from the following Maldivian authorities:
Marine Research Centre, Environment Ministry, Fisheries & Agriculture Ministry, Environmental Protection Agency,
and we must also thank Dubai-based Emirates Group for all their invaluable assistance with transport and flight arrangements.