In April 2012, we had a special visitor come through town for a few days, a juvenile Loggerhead sea turtle- from the size of this animal we are excited to say that this is a representative of the “lost years”.
The lost years for those who aren’t familiar with the term, was created to describe the period of sea turtles life cycles from when they leave the nesting beach as little hatchlings to head out into the open ocean. Once they get out into the open seas, they essentially disappear…. Sea turtle biologists do not know exactly where the go (in any of the major ocean basins or for each of the turtle species), or how long the part of their life cycle is that they spend in “the lost years”.
Pretty fascinating to think- all sea turtle species, the charismatic and a flagship species for ocean conservation- and we just don’t know anything about a large chunk of years from their life cycle!
All we know is that these animals stay far offshore, essentially as plankton- drifting along with the direction of the ocean currents foraging and taking shelter from predators. Once they have grown to around 40 cm in carapace (shell length) then make a active migration to coastal waters to pick a patch of lovely reef or seagrass or mangrove habitat and there they will remain for a number of years, foraging in these waters until they mature and are ready to take a migratory journey sometimes across a whole ocean basin to mating and nesting grounds.
As you’ll see in the short video we made, something wasn’t quite right with the health of this animal, which is why we found it because it (he?/she?) would usually be far out in the open ocean.
I’d like to point out at this age and size, its not possible to determine the sex of the animal so Bunny could be a he or a she!
There is a larger issue to discuss, the potential cause for Bunny’s visit- the accidental ingestion of plastics and other marine debris.
This is a huge problem for sea turtles because they mistake plastics for their natural prey items- jelly fish other gelatinous creatures. If a turtle ingests plastic there are a few possible outcomes for its future:
1) the turtle may be able to naturally pass the plastics/rubbish through their digestive system and no long term damage will occur.
2) the ingested plastic creates a blockage somewhere in the digestive system. Once a blockage occurs this usually leads to a build up of gas in the digestive system which then affects the turtles ability to dive below the surface, an essential behaviour of sea turtles for foraging for food and evading predators. This lack of diving ability is known as “floating turtle syndrome” and is becoming increasing occurrence in marine turtles all over the world. If the animal does not regain the ability to dive then it will remain floating along the ocean surface, slowly becoming emaciated and weak. This if often when these animals are predated on by larger fish and sharks or they end up being washed into coastal waters and stranding.
In a remote and isolated place, like Tofo, Mozambique there is not much rehabilitation we can give animals like ‘Bunny’, if facilities were accessible the animal would be sent in for x-rays to determine if a blockage was actually present and where about it was. Unfortunately for most sea turtles that ingest plastic it is fatal.
Managing your daily reliance on plastic products and packaging, recycling and reusing is the best way to help animals like “Bunny” so we can prevent this occurring in the future. There is enough plastic and rubbish already adrift in the oceans to cause problems for a variety of marine animals.
Prevention is the best cure.