Our Maldivian Sea Turtle Conservation Programmes
Our sea turtle recovery pools at Landaa Giraavaru
Sea turtles remain under threat in the world’s oceans and are officially listed as threatened by IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature). Five of the seven species of sea turtles can be found in the Maldives, with the two most common being the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas), often sighted living on the reef.
The Olive Ridley Turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) are sadly most often found in Maldivian waters after becoming trapped in drifting ghost fishing nets. The two species occasionally spotted are the Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea).
Our Seamarc marine biology team established a sea turtle conservation programme in 2011, following concern over dwindling sea turtle populations across the Maldives. This government-endorsed programme is concerned with three key areas of turtle conservation:
- the protection of turtle nests followed by assisted rearing;
- the rehabilitation of injured turtles;
- photo identification techniques and satellite tracking.
The Olive Ridley turtle, the smallest species of sea turtle, spends much of its time foraging in the open ocean, making it vulnerable to capture as bycatch, ingestion of marine debris, and entanglement in discarded fishing lines and nets. Known as “ghost nets”, these can float and aggregate in the currents, making their way across oceans. Turtles view the nets as shelter or a place to find food but may become irreversibly entangled in the mesh leading to lacerations, amputations, dehydration, and even drowning if they cannot reach the surface to breathe.
To ensure that these turtles have a future in Maldivian waters, we care for sick and injured turtles at our Landaa Giraavaru Rehabilitation Centre. Most of the turtles treated at our centre are Olive Ridley turtles that have been entangled in ghost nets. Since nets are not used in the fishing industry here in the Maldives, they are thought to have drifted on the oceanic currents from India and Sri Lanka.
Some of our rehabilitated turtles have been fitted with satellite tracking devices, contributing valuable data to our research on migration routes and foraging grounds (see below). You can follow the progress of our turtles here, on the interactive Satellite Tracking Maps.
If you have found an injured turtle, please Contact Us and we may be able to help.
In March 2010, an Olive Ridley turtle named ‘Oceane’ initiated Landaa Giraavaru’s turtle rehabilitation programme. Missing a front flipper from an old injury and suffering from buoyancy problems, Oceane was found floating in open water by Landaa’s dive team and brought back to the resort for medical attention. Guided by international marine experts – notably Doctor Jennifer Gilbert of James Cook University, Australia – Landaa’s marine biologists successfully nursed Oceane back to health over a four-month period. During this time, the team began implementing basic procedures to follow when rescuing injured sea turtles.
Ten months later, another Olive Ridley turtle, ‘Olivia’, was brought to the Rehabilitation Centre suffering from severe head injuries. Generous guest donations enabled the construction of a large pool for her, which allowed the team to care for multiple turtles at the same time.
Turtle Nest Protection and Rearing
In 1995, The Maldivian Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture banned the catching or killing of sea turtle species, as well as the importation and sale of turtles and turtle products. Today, turtle poaching is increasingly rare. Unfortunately however, the harvesting of turtle eggs from nesting females is still rife.
Our government-approved nest protection and rearing programme sees us working with local island communities to encourage the protection of turtle nests. Once the protected hatchlings have imprinted on the sand, we release the majority under cover of darkness into safe, deep water away from their natural reef predators. A few individuals are taken back to Kuda Huraa to be reared in our specially built turtle pools for up to 18 months to improve their chance of survival in the wild.
Our turtle pools house around 40 turtles at any one time. The turtles stay with us until they are around 30 centimetres and 4 kilos – too big to be a snack for most of the predators that hunt them as babies.
Whilst in our care, we regularly monitor, clean, weigh and measure the turtles on a weekly basis, and feed them a fresh daily diet of their favourite squid, lobster and fish eggs. All are photo-identified before release; a few are equipped with GPS tags enabling us to follow their route and further contribute to our research.
‘Tommy’ (CM.085) – one of our reared turtle hatchlings
Turtle Photo Identification & Monitoring
The main goal of our Sea Turtle Photo Identification & Monitoring Project is to establish an estimated inventory of Maldivian sea turtles – the identification of individuals within a population being the preliminary step taken in the ecological study of a species. We currently have more than 2,000 individually identified Hawksbill and Green turtles in our database, thanks to everyone who is contributing from resorts, dive schools and safari boats from all over the Maldives.
So far our research has shown that Hawksbills remain on their home reefs throughout the year, travelling only between reefs less than two kilometres apart, while Green turtles tend to use multiple reefs for feeding. Our data also show that we mainly observe female and juvenile turtles on the reefs, with few males of either species being spotted by our researchers.
We are using a photo identification method implemented by scientists from Kélonia and Ifremer, using facial profile photographs, which are unique to each turtle exactly as fingerprints are to humans. Each turtle sighting is given a facial profile ID code and entered into the database, either as a new individual or as a re-sighting.
If you have photos of a turtle taken in the Maldives that you would like us to identify, please contact us – we need high resolution photos showing the sides of a turtle’s face, as well as the date and location of the sighting. You can also post your photos on our Turtle ID Facebook page.
Turtle Satellite Tracking
By tagging some of our turtles before release, we aim to gain a better understanding of their habitat and oceanic travels and to assess our Rehabilitation and Head Start programmes.
The Olive Ridley turtle spends most of its life swimming freely in the open Indian Ocean. Females return to nest on the beaches in Oman, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and most famously along the eastern coast of India, concentrated in mass nesting events (or ‘arribadas‘) at Orissa. Individuals are only occasionally observed offshore in the Maldives.
In recent years, there has been a sharp decline in numbers of nesting Olive Ridley females – the species is now classified as “vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List. Reasons for the decline in populations include the degradation of nesting beaches and by-catch in commercial fishing activities, which occur just offshore from the nesting areas.
Some research has been carried out on nesting females and hatchling Olive Ridley turtles in the Indian Ocean, but very little is known about their pelagic juvenile stage. Juveniles appear to be nomadic, travelling over vast areas of the Indian Ocean. Several satellite tracking studies have confirmed oceanic migration behaviour covering several thousand square kilometres, and this behaviour may make the species more vulnerable to ensnarement by oceanic fisheries (including long-line fishing, purse seining, and pelagic gillnetting).
Satellite tags allow us to study migration patterns of mature turtles, and help us determine the location of foraging grounds for juvenile and mature Olive Ridley turtles. This is also a fun and exciting project for guests to be involved with, allowing sponsorship of the tags and providing a long-term educational and interactive component.
3 Green Turtles released from the beach with satellite tags