Maldives Sea Turtle Identification Programme (MSTIP)

Over the last ten months, our database for the Maldives Sea Turtle Identification Programme (MSTIP) underwent an extensive re-formatting and data validity check (whilst still accepting and processing new submissions). This included deconstructing the original database by sorting the 3,500+ sightings into separate folders with the sighting information and corresponding photos. We then ensured all known sightings for each individual turtle were correct, and all required sighting information and photos were present. If information or photos were missing, the sighting was omitted from the database but will remain in a designated folder for that turtle. Sightings that had been erroneously assigned to an incorrect turtle were removed, to be re-identified at a later date.

During this initial sorting, a separate database has been created for individual turtles with incomplete photographic data (only the left profile, or photos of insufficient quality to generate an accurate ID code). We will use these sightings to match against newly submitted photos from the same geographic site.

All turtles have been re-identified and re-coded using the same methodology, and assigned new scientific IDs: CM (Chelonia mydas) for Green turtles (previously ‘GR’) and EI (Ertmochelys imbricata) for Hawksbill turtles (previously ‘HK’).

Certificates for newly identified sea turtles now include the turtle’s photo and sighting information. Participants receive a sighting report, outlining the turtle’s database history and updated information (new photo, current size, etc.). To increase interaction, we now nominate a “sea turtle of the month”, and will publish a monthly newsletter to highlight interesting sightings, new turtles and our top submitters.

Database modifications to be completed
– Compare turtles within each atoll to remove remaining duplicates
– Match entries in the main database with the query database (‘left profile’ and ‘poor quality photos’)
– Sort and ID all archived sightings, and correct any IDs.
– Complete processing new submissions; add our rehabilitation and head start turtles

Planned development
– Create an online portal for easier submission of organised data, and encourage wider participation. The website could also include an interactive map and search capability
– Contact local dive organisations to promote project awareness
– Increase guest participation within Four Seasons Resorts and Explorer
– Makunudhoo Reef saturation study

Wild Hawksbill turtles – ‘Aalima’ and ‘Hugo

Pavilion Pool

Here at the Marine Discovery Centre of Landaa Giraavaru, we are currently taking care of six rescued Olive Ridley turtles: Ossy, Zahya, Elsa, Peggy, Kerry and La Petite. These turtles were rescued from ‘ghost nets’ – discarded fishing nets that drift on ocean currents, entrapping marine life including turtles – and many suffer from missing flippers as a result of entanglement. They have all been residents for many months now, and it will not be possible to safely return them to the wild because of ‘buoyancy syndrome’. Buoyancy syndrome is caused by gas that is stuck in the turtle’s body, essentially acting as a life-vest that stops them from diving down to feed. (This problem is common to all our turtles except for Elsa, who is missing her two front flippers.) Turtles normally recover from buoyancy syndrome over time, but despite our best rehabilitation efforts we have not been able to find a cure for our long-term residents.

Our Centre’s marine biologists ensure that all our turtles are well looked after before they get transferred or released. They are fed twice a day with fish, squid and lobster (and jellyfish when available). We can perform basic veterinary procedures, and provide the turtles with enrichments in the form of toys and food ice blocks.

More recently, one of our bigger projects was to construct an open water enclosure as a progression from our rehabilitation pools. This enclosure provides a large volume of water enabling turtles to express their natural behaviour more freely. So far Ossy, Elsa and Kerry have been able to swim in this enclosure, and the others will soon be taking their turns. At feeding times we enter the enclosure wearing snorkelling kit, allowing us to get close to the turtles and interact whilst observing their movements, to give us a better picture of overall health.

We do not have the specialist equipment required for effective long-term rehabilitation, so we plan to send our turtle residents to larger marine facilities across Europe, for expert veterinary care. Our turtles can then act as ‘ambassadors’, increasing global awareness of the dangers that ghost nets can cause to marine life.

The new rehabilitation pool for our rescued sea turtles – our turtle lagoon sanctuary beneath Landaa Giraavaru’s ocean-based Wedding Pavilion.

Nest Protection and Head Start

Verde and Midori (both words for green) hatched on 14 February 2015 after 56 days of incubation. The Green sea turtle nest contained 132 eggs, of which 128 (97%) successfully hatched; four hatchlings were saved for our Programme, the others were released directly into the sea. Upon admittance to our Centre, the four new arrivals (Verde, Midori, Daisy and Petunia) were just 5.4cm long and 33g in weight. At time of release, Verde and Midori had grown to an impressive 34cm/5.7kg. The turtles were released together on 23 April at One Palm island (N.Malé Atoll, Maldives).

Two hatchlings (CM.N027.110-111) were found during the nest excavation of a recently hatched nest on Dusit Thani (Baa Atoll). After attempting to be released, it was determined the hatchlings would benefit from head-starting as they were weak and did not attempt to swim when placed in the water. These hatchlings have been named Oscar (CM.110) and Bodhi (CM.111) during a World Oceans Day naming contest amongst guests at FS Kuda Huraa.

May was a busy month, with the admission of five Green sea turtle hatchlings (Chelonia mydas) into our Head Start Programme. All five hatchlings had been left behind in a nest in a weak condition. Due to their small size, they are currently residing in our “nursery” baskets and will be moved into larger pools later this month.

Our nest protection programme recruits the help of locals on nearby islands to look out for and protect any turtle nests they might find. Nesting turtles seem to have arrived later than usual in 2016, perhaps due to stormy weather at the start of the year. The first nest to be observed was laid on 4 March, with further nests over subsequent weeks. Unfortunately, due to extreme high tides, two of the nests were flooded and failed to hatch.

On 23 April, the first nest successfully hatched, yielding 83 green turtle hatchlings. The newborns were transferred to a small pool for their safety, where they were fed on small pieces of fresh fish and allowed to grow for a few weeks.
On 12 May, we organised a guest excursion as part of the hatchling release. Following a presentation about sea turtles and the nest protection programme, we took a speedboat to the nearby uninhabited agricultural island. The island caretakers are actively involved in monitoring and protecting the turtle nests and taking care of the new hatchlings. We were given a brief tour around the beautiful small island, noting the GPS locations of both new and old turtle nests along the beach. We collected and counted the 83 green turtle hatchlings from their temporary pools, ready for their release safely out to sea, beyond the reach of most predators living on the reef. The hatchlings were taken and released on the Eastern side of the atoll, in a deep channel between Baa and Raa atolls, where they will be able to continue their journey out into the open ocean.

The hatching success of this nest was 69% (compared to last year’s average of 90%) and last year we recorded sightings of 20 nests compared to the two confirmed nests so far this year. There are many variables that could account for these differences, including the 1-3 year nesting interval of green sea turtles and natural alterations to the beach topography making it less suitable.