Our Maldivian Sea Turtle Conservation Programs
Enjoy a short presentation by Katrina, our resident sea turtle veterinarian, explaining our conservation projects and research
Sea Turtles in the Maldives
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 Reefscapers team of marine biologists 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 for any sick or injured juveniles;
- the rehabilitation of injured turtles;
- photo identification techniques and satellite tracking.
🌊 Come take an ocean swim with Ari at Kuda Huraa ! 💦
Join 📸 @bethanywilkinson (Turtle Biologist) and 🎬 @charliesp.mb (Marine Biologist) swimming in the ocean with Ari the Olive Ridley. This is done frequently as part of her enriched rehabilitation, with the aim of improving her buoyancy syndrome and to encourage her to dive for sea grass.
We are honoured to work in research and conservation with these magnificent creatures…and are determined to do everything we can to protect them from the endless threats they face. From plastic pollution to reef destruction to climate change, sea turtles are fighting a losing battle… but assuming all turtles have the same fierce determination to survive as Ari, we are optimistic for their future💪
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 Rehabilitation Centres at both Landaa Giraavaru and Kuda Huraa. Most of our patients 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. Meet our current turtle patients.
Some of our rehabilitated turtles have been fitted with satellite tracking devices, contributing to our research on migration routes and foraging grounds (see below).
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.
Steps to Take If You Find an Injured Sea Turtle > Our Turtle Rescue Hotline: +960 988 7853
If you find a sea turtle entangled in a fishing net, or floating on the ocean surface, here are some practical tips to follow, from our resident veterinarian Dr Katrina. Call our Hotline for expert guidance > https://marinesavers.com/hotline/
Evaluation of sea turtle morbidity and mortality within the Indian Ocean
from 12 years of data shows high prevalence of ghost net entanglement
Our research paper, published in the journal PLOS ONE, detailing and analysing our turtle rescue data over a 12 year period.
Anthropogenic activities (caused by humans) can negatively affect sea turtle populations. Quantifying the effect of human actions on these threatened species can help guide management strategies to reduce adverse impacts.
Assessments require extensive effort and resources and as such have not been carried out in many areas of important sea turtle habitat, including the Republic of the Maldives.
Here, we utilise 12 years of data (2010–2022) collected from marine turtle stranding and rehabilitation cases from across the Maldives to identify the key threats in this region.
- Turtles found stranded or injured were: Olive ridley (75% of total cases), along with hawksbill (15%), and green (10%) turtles.
- Anthropogenic factors were the primary cause of injury or stranding in 75% of all cases, with entanglement in ghost fishing gear being the most common (66% of all cases). Other causes of morbidity were recorded less frequently: turtles being kept as pets (6%), boat strikes (<1%), bycatch (<1%), poaching (<1%).
- Olive ridley turtles were more likely to have injuries associated with entanglement than other species, and showed a peak in admissions during the northeast monsoon, in the period following the known arribada nesting season in nearby India.
- Turtles admitted following entanglement were released 70 days sooner, and had 27% lower mortality rates, than turtles admitted for other causes.
- This study highlights the high prevalence of ghost net entanglement of sea turtles within the Maldives. The topic of ghost fishing is of global importance and international cooperation is critical in tackling this growing issue.
Maldives Turtle Identification Project
What Is Photo Identification?
Photo identification is a non-invasive method to study marine population dynamics, and has been used on a variety of different marine species such as dolphins, whales, manta rays and sea turtles.
The images use unique, naturally occurring marks on each creature’s body to identify different individuals. Turtles can be identified by their facial scutes on either side of their face, as a turtle’s facial profile is unique to them, similar to human fingerprints!
Our Photo Identification Project
Our photo identification project has been using turtles’ unique facial scutes to identify individuals since 2011, making it the longest-running database of its kind in the Maldives.
The key to the success of the project is the valuable contributions from citizen scientists – anyone within the Maldives can take part and contribute to sea turtle science and conservation.
From more than 5,000 photographic turtle sightings, we have been able to uniquely identify more than 1600 individuals, including 1,300 Hawksbill turtles and 280 Green turtles, sighted across 17 atolls of the Maldives, with many regular resightings!
Why Is It Important to Collect Photo ID Data ?
The data helps us to understand population size and composition, and identify critical habitats such as mating grounds, foraging areas, and migratory routes. Green and hawksbill turtles are the two most frequently spotted turtles across the Maldives, but sadly their numbers are in decline, with Greens officially classified as “threatened” and Hawksbills as “critically endangered”. Sea turtles are essential to the Maldives both ecologically –by maintaining coral reef health and fish population – and economically through tourism revenue, therefore, this information is crucial for future national conservation efforts.
How To Take Part in Turtle ID in the Maldives
Citizens can submit photographs of both sides of a turtle’s facial profile (both sides are required as they are asymmetrical). Each photo is checked through our database to determine if it’s a resighting of an existing turtle, or a new sighting of an unidentified individual to be added to our database (if the photo details are of sufficient quality).
During data collection, citizens are expected to follow responsible practices when snorkelling or diving with turtles. Safety of both turtles and humans is a top priority, and photos should only be taken when conditions are safe and not causing stress to the turtle.
When a new turtle is identified, the photographer gets the chance to name the turtle and receives a certificate.
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 efforts.
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 juvenile 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
Turtle Nest Protection
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 continues to be an issue.
Our government-approved nest protection programme sees us working with local island communities to encourage the protection of turtle nests. Once the protected juveniles have imprinted on the sand, we release the majority under cover of darkness into safe, deep water away from their natural reef predators. Any sick or injured individuals are taken back to Kuda Huraa to be cared for in our dedicated turtle pools before release into the ocean.
Whilst in our care, we regularly monitor, clean, weigh and measure the turtles, and feed them a fresh daily diet of their favourite squid, lobster and fish eggs. All turtles are photo-identified before release; a few are equipped with GPS tags enabling us to follow their route and further contribute to our research.
Sex Determination of Sea Turtle Hatchlings
Thanks to our long-term sea turtle ID project, we have been recording sightings of fewer numbers of male turtles over recent years. We think this might be due to increasing global temperatures.
Unusually in the animal kingdom, the sex of most species of turtles (and some other reptiles) is determined after fertilisation. The temperature of the incubating eggs determines if the hatchlings will be male or female (warmer sand produces more females).
- Incubation <27.7°C, the turtle hatchlings will be male.
- Incubation >31°C, the hatchlings will be female.
- Variable temperatures produce a mix of both male and female hatchlings.
As the Earth experiences climate change, increased global temperatures will likely result in fewer male turtle hatchlings, which could be devastating for the future survival of all species of sea turtles.