Sea turtles are coming ashore in increasing numbers. But we’ve now had a rare visitor, writes PETER FROST.
AN OVER two-foot long rare olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) came ashore on an Anglesey beach last November.
It was the first ever example of this very rare species to be found alive on a British beach. Local people nicknamed the turtle Menai.
The animal was in poor condition, she was severely hypothermic when found stranded.
She was around 15,000 miles from her usual habitat, warm and tropical waters, primarily in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The stranded turtle was looked after at Anglesey Sea Zoo and then taken 400 miles by road to Hertfordshire’s Royal Veterinary College for a CAT scan and more sophisticated care.
The aim is to get her fit enough to be returned to the wild. The scans discovered Menai has gas inside her carapace, making it difficult for her to submerge and swim underwater. She is also suffering lung damage.
But experts who are caring for Menai called the results “good news.” “There are no huge worries,” Anglesey Sea Zoo director Frankie Hobro told us.
“We are happy now that we know what the problem is. We can now research what treatment she needs to recover. The next stage is to drain the gas and correct her buoyancy problems.”
Menai is the first olive ridley turtle to be sighted in Britain since records began in 1748. Now olive ridley turtle experts are planning her rehabilitation and hope to release her back into the wild.
The olive ridley is the second smallest sea turtle after the very closely related Kemp’s ridley. Olive ridleys weigh between 75-100 pounds and reach 2-2 ½ feet in length.
They are named for their pale green carapace or shell and are the most abundant of all sea turtle species.
Olive ridleys occur globally and are found mainly in tropical regions of the Pacific, Indian and southern Atlantic Oceans.
They are primarily pelagic, spending much of their life in the open ocean but may also inhabit bays and estuaries.
Some olive ridleys lay eggs on solitary beach sites but some come together for huge and spectacular beach invasions where thousands of females land on the same beach at the same time to lay their eggs. These spectacular mass-egg layings are called arribadas (“arrival” in Spanish).
Strangely there are only a few places in the world where olive ridley arribadas occur. In other parts of the world, they are solitary nesters.
Though arribadas are not well understood; the timing may coincide with weather events such as strong winds or cloudy days, or with moon and tide cycles.
The turtles congregate in large groups offshore of nesting beaches and then simultaneously come ashore to nest.
Females may remain offshore near nesting beaches throughout the nesting season.
These turtles eat a variety of prey including crabs, shrimp, lobster, urchins, jelly fish, algae and fish.
Despite their relative abundance in comparison to other sea turtles, olive ridleys are considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List and is listed as threatened in the US.
Although they are still the most abundant species, their numbers have decreased by approximately half since the 1960s.
Historically, the olive ridley has been hunted for food, bait, oil, leather and fertiliser.
The meat is not considered a delicacy. The eggs however are said to be delicious and have always been a valuable commodity. Egg collection is illegal in most of the countries where olive ridleys nest, but these laws are rarely strictly enforced.
Legal egg harvesting has been allowed in several localities. Perhaps the biggest is in Ostional, Costa Rica, where villagers have been able to harvest and sell around three million eggs each year.
Over 27 million eggs are left un-harvested and villagers claim they play a large role in protecting these nests from predators, thereby increasing hatching success.
In most other regions, illegal poaching of eggs is considered a major threat to olive ridley populations and attracts much criticism from conservationists and sea turtle biologists.
As well as egg digging, other major threats to the turtle include degradation of nesting beaches, particularly in India where large commercial coastal developments threaten traditional turtles nesting sites.
Many of their nesting beaches have already been destroyed by coastal development and subsequent erosion.
Other threats include the direct harvest of turtles and eggs for human consumption and the accidental capture of turtles in commercial fishing gear.
It is estimated that more than 60,000 sea turtles, mainly olive ridleys, are caught and drowned in commercial shrimp trawl nets each year.
Over the last few years, winter storms have led to a steep rise in the number of turtles being washed up on our British beaches.
Last winter, a total of 16 warm-water turtles — some critically endangered — were found on the British shoreline, the highest total since 2008 according to environmental groups.
Most of the comatose turtles washed up are juveniles, less able to cope with strong waves, and they are usually starving and suffering from hypothermia.
Here is some advice for those taking winter walks on our beaches who may find a sea turtle washed up by recent gales.
The reptiles can’t stand the cold weather, which shuts them down and they eventually wash up on our shores.
When they wash up they are so moribund that, to the casual observer, they may appear to be dead but actually they may still be alive, and with expert care can be rescued and nurtured back to health to make a full recovery.
Under no circumstances should turtles be put back into the sea, as the thermal shock from the cold waters would certainly kill them.
You should immediately report any stranded animals to the RSPCA.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 3 February 2017.