Thaís Barbosa

Thaís Barbosa

Turtle Veterinarian, Kuda Huraa

Growing up in such a biodiverse country as Brazil and in a family of animal scientists and vets, Thaís has always been fascinated by animals, especially sea turtles. Since starting at the São Paulo State University in 2021 , she has been dedicating her time to conservation efforts at home and overseas, like New Zealand, the United States, and now, the Maldives!
Thaís had the opportunity to work at the most important turtle nesting site in Brazil, gathering experience in rehabilitation, research, and husbandry of resident animals. Thaís is our resident sea turtle veterinarian at Kuda Huraa (2023), and she is excited to join the Marine Savers team for the opportunity to keep working with these amazing animals.

Ghost Net Removal and the Rescue of Thiandu

Emergency turtle rescue operations were required regularly throughout January. Mid-month, following an alert by our Resort colleagues, we deployed our aerial drone to the Channel site, to inspect a large ghost net caught on the reef. From our remote footage, we were able to spot an Olive Ridely sea turtle entangled in the netting, and quickly despatched our rescue team to bring Thiandu back to our Turtle Rescue Centre.

THIANDU stranded Olive Ridley turtle Maldives

Thais’ Veterinary Visit to Landaa Giraavaru

During Thais’ cross-exposure visit, our turtle team discussed treatment protocols, medication sourcing, research ideas, and much more!

Although my stay at Landaa was all too brief, I was updated on turtle rehabilitation protocols. I was also able to assist in attaching Noonu’s satellite tag, and watch her release… an amazing experience as a turtle veterinarian! These are the moments that make all our turtle conservancy efforts worthwhile. It was interesting and productive to meet Landaa’s experienced resident veterinarian, Dr. Kat, and we performed an exploratory endoscopy and bronchoscopy on Olive Ridley turtle patient Frisbee, a good hands-on learning experience.

Frisbee has been a patient at Landaa for several years and has long-term buoyancy syndrome as well as being a double amputee as a result of entanglement in ghost netting. We have long suspected that Frisbee’s buoyancy syndrome is a result of lung damage caused by the stress of entanglement. Following sedation, we slowly passed the endoscope into his windpipe to look for lung damage, but we could only visualise as far as the glottis.

We also trialled a new treatment for turtle buoyancy syndrome for our hawksbill patient, Artemis, using weights to counteract the extra air trapped in Artemis’ shell (caused by previous entanglement in a ghost net). The weights are enclosed in small pouches of bandage, fixed to her shell with glue, allowing the weights to be adjusted and removed as necessary. Artemis is tolerating the treatment well, but so far, she has shown no signs of improvement in her diving ability.

BEE turtle rehabilitation Maldives
THARI turtle rescue & rehab Maldives

What Causes Buoyancy Disorder in Sea Turtles?

Control of buoyancy is of utmost importance for sea turtles, enabling hunting, grazing, diving, breathing, and migrations. These animals use their large lung capacity to regulate their level in the water during a dive. As they go deeper, there is an increase in hydrostatic pressure causing the lung volume to decrease, thereby making the turtle more negatively buoyant. During ascent, decreasing hydrostatic pressure causes the lungs to expand, thereby increasing positive buoyancy.

This ability can be compromised by:
– the presence of air in the coelomic cavity (pneumocoelom) due to pulmonary tears,
– gas accumulation in the digestive tract,
– pulmonary disease (which decreases lung capacity),
– neurological trauma/ disease,
– decompression sickness,
– even have a behavioral atiology.
Treatment consists of assessing the initial pathology of each patient associated with external target weight therapy, environmental and nutritional management. There are great knowledge gaps in sea turtle medicine and buoyancy disorder is no different, as some cases remain a mystery as to why the rehabilitation is or is not successful.

  • Manire et al (2017)Sea Turtle Health & Rehabilitation, chapter 27- Buoyancy Disorders, p.687

“The Lost Years” of Sea Turtles

Turtles spend between 1–15 years in the open sea, a period referred to as ‘the lost years’, because observations on their whereabouts and behaviours are sparse. After this period of oceanic dispersal, turtles typically recruit to nearshore foraging grounds and then, some years later, return to their natal site to reproduce. To be caring for juvenile loggerheads like Luck and Bee is a very rare privilege, and we are carefully recording anatomical data to help fill these knowledge gaps.

  • Mansfield et al (2013)Oceanic habits and habitats of Caretta caretta (Loggerheads). Biology of Sea Turtles, vol III. CRC Press, p.189
LUCK rescue hatchling Olive Ridley turtle Maldives

Persistent Marine Anthropogenic Debris and Plastic Ingestion by Sea Turtles

The accumulation of persistent anthropogenic debris in the marine environment in recent years has reached epic proportions, with the problems of plastic ingestion and entanglement causing morbidity and mortality in sea turtles (and many marine species) around the world. A considerable portion of oceanic waste is to be found in the subtropical gyres of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. The unique migratory behaviour and feeding ecology of sea turtles makes them particularly vulnerable to the threat of entanglement.

There are several hypotheses to explain why marine animals consume plastic in such large quantities. Recent studies suggest that plastic might look similar to the food they normally consume. In addition, some animals might mistake plastic for food due to olfactory cues. Algae and other microorganisms emit odours similar to the natural cues used by the turtles to locate food. These organisms make up biofouling on plastic waste, causing turtles and other marine animals to mistakenly consume it.

Consequences of plastic consumption can include: abnormal nutritional absorption, altered feeding behaviour, buoyancy disorder, blockage of GI tract, infections, and ingestion of toxic substances bound to the plastic.

  • Eastman et al (2020)Plastic Ingestion in Post-hatchling Sea Turtles: Assessing a Major Threat in Florida Near Shore Waters. Mar. Sci. 7:693
  • Savoca et al (2017)Odours from marine plastic debris induce food search behaviours in a forage fish. Biological Sciences / the Royal Society 284(1860)
  • Schuyler et al (2012)To eat or not to eat? Debris selectivity by marine turtles. Plos One 7(7), p. e40884.
  • White et al (2018) [PDF]Ingested micronizing plastic particle compositions and size distributions within stranded post-hatchling sea turtles. Sci. Technol. 52, 10307–10316
Sea turtles ingested plastic debris Maldives
Sea turtles ingested plastic debris Maldives

Go Slow, Turtles Below: Vessel Strike Accidents

A ‘vessel strike’ is a collision between any type of boat and an animal in the ocean. All sizes and types of vessels—from large ships to jet skis—have the potential to collide with around 75 different marine species, including many threatened with extinction. This poses a significant threat to life, leading to population-level effects that can influence species recovery or decline.

Evidence of vessel strikes causing injuries and death in sea turtles is widespread, with documented occurrences in various regions of the world. It is important for vessel drivers to be vigilant, and to not exceed speeds of 10 knots to reduce the potential for injury; spotting boats should maintain a safe distance from megafauna, and cut their engines if necessary.

  • Ryan et al (2023)Spatial mapping of vulnerability hotspots: Information for mitigating vessel-strike risks to sea turtles. Global Ecology and Conservation, Vol 46
  • Gregory et al (2012)The role of the International Maritime Organization in reducing vessel threat to whales: Process, options, action and effectiveness. Marine Policy, Vol 36, Issue 6
    OEKAASHI injured turtle rehab Maldives
    OEKAASHI injured turtle rehab Maldives