Endangered sea turtle returns  to the wild

Algarve Resident Editor Inês Lopes joined a Zoomarine expedition to release an endangered sea turtle, which was rescued and rehabilitated in Holland, into the wild.

One of two endangered sea turtles taken to Zoomarine’s marine conservation centre two weeks ago was returned to the ocean off the coast of Albufeira on August 7, thanks to the efforts of biologists in Holland, Lisbon and the Algarve.

Aboard a boat that sailed 15 miles off Albufeira Marina, a team of biologists from Zoomarine ensured that Dobber, a loggerhead sea turtle, was kept stabilised and moist.

The release was described as a success, with the turtle, following an hour sail towards high seas, energetically swimming off and disappearing from view.

Marco Bragança, a biologist at Zoomarine in Albufeira, said Dobber, which means ‘floater’ in Dutch, was young although an age could not be defined, weighed 22 kilos and measured 53.3 centimetres long.

Dobber, a loggerhead sea turtle (caretta caretta), and Johnny, a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii), washed up along the Netherlands coast last October and were rescued and rehabilitated by biologists at Burger’s Zoo in Arnhem and Rotterdam Zoo respectively, where they stayed for nine months until they were ready to return to the sea.

In the search for the best location to release the reptiles, the Dutch biologists considered Portuguese waters, with temperatures higher than 18 degrees centigrade, and contacted the Lisbon Oceanarium team who cared for the turtles before they were transported to Zoomarine.

Frederico Mestre, also a biologist at Zoomarine, told the Algarve Resident: “Our extensive experience in releasing sea animals back into the wild after rehabilitation led to the Oceanarium contacting us.”

Rarest turtle

All species of sea turtles are listed as threatened or endangered, however, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are the rarest and most endangered species of turtles in the world and 95 per cent of the world’s population nest and are born in one particular beach in Mexico.

Biologists at Zoomarine were the first to discover that Johnny was in fact a Kemp’s Ridley upon closer inspection and that is why its release will be a more complex operation.

Élio Vicente, director of science and education at the centre, explained that Johnny was believed to be of the caretta caretta species, “however, its plastron (bottom shell) was covered in pores that look like black spots, a feature of the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles when they are young,” he said. “We suddenly realised we were dealing with the rarest and most endangered species of turtles in the world.”

The next mission will be to find a way of flying Johnny to the Gulf of Mexico. “We have made contact with the Portuguese Air Force and hope that with their cooperation and that of the US Air Force, we will be able to transport Johnny to the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

“These sea turtles may have taken the ‘wrong turn’ while drifting along the North Atlantic current, finding themselves, cold-stunned, along the Netherlands’ coast.”

Other times turtles are collected by crew on board transatlantic cruise liners who adopt them as mascots, but later find they have to release them when they reach destination. “Human beings are like the plague for these animals. They need to respect their freedom,” said Élio Vicente.

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