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Sea Turtles entangled. Two Olive Ridley sea turtles are hopelessly entangled in fishing gear. Thousands of sea turtles perish under similiar circumstances every year. The greatest tragedy is that these deaths are preventable.
Photo: Chris Johnson

April 29, 2003
The Sea Turtle Tragedy
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Sri Lankan waters.

Having left a pod of whales in the northern Gulf of Mannar, we are now on a southerly course, criss-crossing back and forth while Odyssey tows its acoustic array in search of a new group of sperm whales.

We sighted no animals this morning, not a bird, not even a flying fish. However, what we saw and are still seeing in frightening abundance is evidence of pollution-primarily floating plastics and discarded fishing gear. It is frightening because an encounter with manmade, synthetic debris is often lethal to a huge variety of marine creatures.

At 2 o'clock this afternoon, Peter radioed the helm from the observation platform when he spotted something floating in the water about 300 meters ahead. As Mark followed Peter's directions to steer Odyssey toward the floating object, Peter called down again: "I think it's a turtle tangled in fishing gear".

Peter and Rebecca use knives to cut the turtles free.
Photo: Chris Johnson

However, it was not one turtle, but two. We were unsure what to expect, but assumed they were probably dead. Suddenly, within 50 meters of the bow a flipper broke the surface as one animal struggled in vain against the weight of the line. At the same moment, a second turtle lifted its head to take a breath of air-both were still alive.

But they were also hopelessly entangled, with strong lines knotted and twisted around their flippers, their heads and their shells. For a turtle in such a predicament, there would normally be no chance of escape. It would face a slow, lingering death from starvation, or a violent end from shark attack.

Hundreds of thousands of marine creatures including turtles, fishes, seabirds and marine mammals perish every year under similar circumstances. Ultimately, death must come as a relief after what may be days, even weeks, of indescribable suffering. The greatest tragedy is that these deaths are preventable. People need only dispose of plastic waste and unwanted fishing gear responsibly, so that this kind of debris doesn't end up floating in the sea.

Peter and Reb slid into the water with a knife and scissors to free the pair. Interestingly, while the lines were being cut, both turtles ceased their struggling. We briefly lifted both animals onto the deck so we could positively identify their species, measure them, and, most importantly, so we could check them for injury. Both were female Olive Ridley Turtles; one an adult, the other a juvenile. Apart from some bruising around their necks and fore flippers, both seemed in remarkably good health. They must have entangled only recently.

The Olive Ridley is the smallest of the eight recognised sea turtle species, with adults typically weighing less than one hundred pounds (30-40 kilograms). The species derives its name from the adult's olive green, heart shaped shell (properly speaking its 'carapace'). Olive Ridley's are widespread throughout tropical waters, in the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Ocean's, but as with all other sea turtle species, there numbers are dwindling rapidly.

Mark and Asha measure one of the turtles and check it for injury. Apart from some bruising on the neck and foreflippers, both turtles seem in good health.
Photo: Chris Johnson

For less fortunate turtles that are not rescued, death does not mean the end of the fishing gear's killing spree. Fishing nets are tough; they are made of plastics that do not break down but continue to drift on ocean currents claiming countless more victims long after the turtles have died. In fact the net becomes self-baiting: once dead, the turtles become bait to attract future victims who become bait when they come to feed and become entangled themselves-thus attracting the next victims. Though both net-makers and net-users claim, not surprisingly, that nets sink in a couple of weeks, such nets may actually continue for far longer before becoming so festooned with encrusting growth that they sink to the bottom. However, it may be many more months or years that they continue their killing. A net may kill far more animals once lost than it did while still being tended by fishers. And even if a net eventually washes up on some beach, it may become a hazard for nesting turtles, seabirds, sea lions, as well as other species that are strictly terrestrial.

As Reb and Peter released the turtles, some of us jumped into the water to watch. The adult dove at once, and was out of sight in seconds, but the juvenile stayed at the surface investigating those of us in the water. Thus, we spent a few privileged minutes watching this ancient reptile 'fly' birdlike through the fluid medium that has been it's unpolluted realm for millions of years. As the mid afternoon sun rays beamed down through the clear blue water, the young turtle finally turned and began her dive, her long fore flippers stroking powerfully, her hind flippers acting as rudders. And then she was gone.

Although we all felt relieved at having found and released these animals, we also felt distressed by the realization that at this very moment, throughout the world's oceans, countless sea turtles were undoubtedly dying slow deaths, drifting helplessly, entangled in discarded fishing debris. We knew with greater focus than ever before that the overwhelming majority will never be seen or rescued, their miserable deaths passing by unwitnessed by those whose careless, selfish actions are responsible for them.

There is something extraordinarily moving about coming face to face with an animal whose fateful predicament has been caused by the thoughtlessness of our species. It produces strong, but mixed emotions: I felt an overwhelming burst of joy as I watched those gentle, passive creature swim free-but also a flash of rage and guilt at what our species does to them and their ocean home.

While strict regulations by many countries ban the trade in sea turtles and turtle parts, turtle numbers continue to decline due to other factors. Thousands drown every year in shrimp nets, gill nets, as well as by being impaled on the hooks of long lines, thousands more become tangled in discarded monofilament netting, are ground up in dredges, or suffocate after ingesting plastic they have mistaken for jellyfish.

Both turtles were then set free.
Photo: Chris Johnson

If we are to have any significant chance of saving the world's remaining sea turtles we must act now. Although there is still time, the final hour is upon us. By taking responsibility for even the smallest thing, such as helping teach others not to discard broken fishing gear overboard, we can make a crucial difference together. We must point out repeatedly that it is critically important to dispose of synthetic materials responsibly, including plastics and unwanted fishing gear. You and I must educate ourselves enough to become accountable when we purchase seafood, so that we don't support fisheries that use destructive practices or that have a large bycatch that includes sea turtles. A little effort will go a long way in preventing the unimaginable suffering of marine creatures. And the result will be positive for future generations of both turtles and humans.


  • The Odyssey crew rescued a sea turtle that was caught in discarded fishing gear in the eastern Pacific Ocean over three years ago.
    Watch the video report - Real Video: > 64k   > 200k
  • Learn more about the breeding patterns, lifecycle and threats to Sea Turtles.
  • Find out how other marine mammals are affected by man-made synthetic debris dumped at sea - Click here
  • What is the deadliest predator of the sea?
  • What did the crew report on one year ago in Australia? Two years ago in Papua New Guinea?
    Three years ago in the Galapagos Islands? -> Real Audio: > 28K

    Written by Genevieve Johnson

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