Oil Spills and Sea Turtles
Each year, human activities expose our oceans to more and more pollutants, from plastic trash to harmful chemicals. Oil spills and leakage of petroleum from marine vessels are common examples of pollutants that can threaten the survival of marine organisms and their habitats, with long-term effects on delicate food chains and overall marine populations. Fortunately for us in the Maldives, oil spills are uncommon, however, there are occasional occurrences of fuel leakages.
On 22 January 2020, we admitted a juvenile Olive Ridley turtle, Tara, to our Rehabilitation Centre. Tara was the unfortunate victim of an oil spill. She was found floating near the island of Fuvahmulah, coated almost entirely in a layer of thick black tar. Our expert team of marine biologists immediately started emergency treatments, with meticulous scrubbing (using mayonnaise!) to remove the tar. She is now in a clean, stable condition and slowly regaining her strength… she was rescued in the nick of time!
If there is an oil slick present on the ocean surface, sea turtles can often ingest it when they surface for air. The sticky oil-water emulsion enters the turtle’s mouth, nostrils and eyes, severely restricting their vision and breathing. This impairment often overwhelms turtles; the ingested tar balls contain toxic compounds that remain in the digestive tract for several days until fully absorbed into the vital organs. Conditions such as gut blockage, starvation and buoyancy syndrome tend to result, which can be deadly if left untreated.
Sea turtles are vulnerable to the impacts of oil at all stages of their life; eggs, post-hatchlings, juveniles and adults. If sea turtle nests are exposed to oils washed up on the beach, this can increase egg mortality and may lead to deformities in the surviving hatchlings. Hatchlings that encounter spilled oil will have trouble swimming, making them more vulnerable to predators. Any oil that sediments in turtle foodstuffs and is consumed would significantly affect the overall health of the turtle.
Tara sadly only represents one case of the suffering and endangerment to marine life as a result of accidents and human industry.