There are seven sea turtle species in the world. They have lived on this planet for over 100 Million years. But by now all of them are in danger of extinction, three of them being critically endangered. It seems that even though these lovely animals have survived the dinosaurs, they will not live past us humans. To learn more about sea turtles and raise awareness about their situation, our project week group spent the first two days of Project Week in Sanya and worked with Sea Turtles 911, a local NGO dedicated to the conservation of sea turtles – mainly the Hawksbill Sea Turtle (critically endangered) and the Green Sea Turtle (endangered), which are the two species that are home in the South China Sea.
The NGO is running a sea turtle hospital on the outskirts of the fisher village, where they treat sick or injured sea turtles with medicine, raise and finally release them. Most of the sea turtles are brought to the hospital by local fishermen, who have illegal sea turtle farms and want to know how to heal their turtles themselves or who have found the sea turtles in the water or on the beach and have the dignity to save and not kill and sell it – or by the police who find the sea turtles in the illegal farms or get them from the fishermen who found them. The volunteers are very glad to have such a close collaboration with the police, who help and support them in their honorable work of trying to rescue sea turtles.
Unfortunately there was not too much for us to do at the sea turtle hospital, as it was still clean and the nets well knit from the last student group that had just left before our arrival. But we still got to collect trash and dead fish from the harbor water surrounding the floating hospital. It is shocking, how much litter we brought together in only five minutes! Three big buckets of alcohol bottles, plastic bags, fish corpses and fruit pieces soon stood on the hospital platform under our disgusted stares. We then fed the turtles, throwing lettuce and small fish into their nets. Some of the turtles, like Olive, our Olive Ridley, or the baby turtles immediately started diving for their food, while others like Anoye, a large Green Sea Turtle of around 200 kilograms of weight, didn’t even look at the lettuce. It was fascinating to see how easily the turtle’s beaks snapped off the fish’s heads. You wouldn’t think that their jaws are this strong, but in fact your finger is likely to be bitten off if it ends up in a sea turtle’s mouth!
Anoye hadn’t eaten for a week when we came; he is very sick. Being the hospital’s oldest patient, they are not too sure what is wrong with him, but when we were in the hospital he was very weak. He couldn’t even swim up to the water surface anymore, to breath, so we had to hold him up in the net till he made a slurping sound, proof for him breathing in. Only then we would release him for a while, anxiously hoping he would swim high enough again for us to grab and pull him up. It was both tiring and incredibly moving to see this large, graceful animal in such a bad and needy shape. Luckily, water makes the sea turtles seem lighter; otherwise we would have been never able to hold Anoye up. While keeping him at the surface, I scrubbed Anoye’s back. Turtles are sensitive to touch on their carapace (the upper shell), so they enjoy being stroked and scrubbed. Anoye held still while I brushed the algae and corals off his back, which had gathered there due to the lack of cleaner fish in the harbor, which would clean the turtles in the open sea.
For nearly all sea turtles in the sea turtle hospital in Sanya, humans are the cause of their injury or disease – except for Quasimodo, who has a disease that makes his carapace grow into the wrong direction, squeezing his lungs and suffocating him. Water pollution through trash and chemicals, stress through noise and humans hunting them for their skin, meat and shell, and frequent water traffic have damaged the habitat of sea turtles and made it hard for them to maintain health. The NGO in Sanya wrote on their Homepage: “With brutally idle apathy we [humans] have turned a blind eye to their tragic plight. Today, because of our ignorance and carelessness, these beautiful creatures are nearing extinction. Today, we must salvage the self-respect of our race. Today, we must save the sea turtles before it is too late.” Their phrasing might sound a little too idealistic and dramatic – but it is true: Sea turtles’ extinction is closer than you might think. And we could actually do something against it! Only one example would be our PW beach cleanup at the harbor shore in the fishing village the hospital was located in. To say that we cleaned the whole beach or had a huge impact on the local cleanliness of the harbor would be an immense exaggeration. When we left the beach with a dozen of large bags filled with trash and looked behind, it seemed like nothing had changed except for us hoping to have done something meaningful. But if someone would do this everyday, of if everybody would simply not dump their trash into the sea or harbor, this could already make a big difference overall.
Spending two days at the sea turtle hospital really made me conscious again of how dependent nature’s survival is of us humans by now, and how careful we must treat our environment and the many species living together with us on this earth to literally save our planet from chaos and disruption. The extinction of seven species, even though they are all sea turtles, might not seem to dramatic at first sight, but each of them is unique in its contribution to the marine system. Sea turtles are e.g. the only natural predator who are immune to jelly fish stings and can hence eat them. If sea turtles become extinct, there are no more barriers to jelly fish activity and they will easily overtake our oceans. And that is only one reason to protect sea turtles and try to work against the time and humans’ lack of responsibility and awareness.
[Photos 2,3,4 and 5 taken by © Oda Nissen, Norway]