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Loggerhead Sea Turtle being examined after an x-ray
This young turtle lost one of its fore flippers after being entangled in fishing gear. It will remain in a recovery tank until it learns to swim effectively with three limbs.
Photo - Chris Johnson

March 24, 2005
'Tortuga Hospital' - Centro de Recuperacion de Fauna, Gran Canaria
Real Audio Report -   28k

Watch a special additional video report showing the behind the scenes of this special turtle recovery center.
  Real Video -   56k   200k

View an extended photo gallery of this report - click here


Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.

Last September, a juvenile loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) was found stranded ashore in poor condition and in need of medical attention. The animal was brought to Centro de Recuperacion de Fauna - Silvestre de Tafira on Gran Canaria. More than 200 turtles, are brought to the rehabilitation hospital every year as a result of entanglement in fishing nets, swallowed hooks, ingested plastic, boat strikes and oil spills. Sea turtles do not nest in the Canary Islands, but the archipelago is an important feeding area for juvenile loggerhead turtles.

Sea turtles are among the oldest living reptiles on earth having survived over 200 million years and two mass extinctions. Today, all seven species of sea turtle are listed by the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as threatened or endangered species.

Dr. Pascual Calabuig Miranda is a veterinarian, biologist and the Director of the government funded recuperation center. The center was founded over 16 years ago following the need for a rescue and rehabilitation centre for injured sea turtles and other animals.

Veterinarian Dr. Ana Belen Casal Lopez (left) with Iballa de Vicente Delgado
Veterinarian Dr. Ana Belen Casal Lopez (left) with Iballa de Vicente Delgado - one of the biologists working at the center. This juvenile loggerhead sea turtle (turtle no. 820) is one of over 200 sea turtles brought to the Centro de Recuperacion de Fauna,Gran Canaria every year. Most are victims of entanglements in fishing gear and ingestion of plastic debris.
Photo - Chris Johnson

Today, the Odyssey crew was invited to tour the center and meet some of the staff. We watched as sea turtle number 820 - the juvenile brought in last September - had her monthly x-ray to determine if the 3-inch hook in her intestines moved. Pascual has decided not to operate on this individual, as the hook is not embedded in any tissue. He hopes the hook will break into pieces as the x-ray suggests and the turtle can pass it naturally. Pascual and Dr. Ana Belen Casal Lopez, another vet in the center, checked the x-ray and took a blood sample. Nothing much seemed to have changed, so the turtle will be returned to a secure pen to rest and x-rayed again next month.

Next to the surgery is a small education hall where they host students on a regular basis. Photographs on the walls portray the tragic plight of sea turtles around the Canary Islands. The crew walked over to a glass case in the center of the room, it was filled with hooks, some less than an inch (2.54 centimeters) long, others over 6 inches (15 centimeters) in length. Ana told us that all of these hooks were removed from the jaws, tracheas, or stomachs of turtles, and these were only a small percentage of the hooks removed over the past several years.

Pascual showed the crew some of the photos from his database. Most turtles are reported stranded on the beach, or are brought to the center by locals or fisherman. Some have obvious injuries; others appear healthy on the outside, their injuries only revealed after an x-ray. All turtles are photographed on arrival at the center, the progress of the most severe cases is documented over the months of captivity. The images were endless; entanglement in fishing gear, infection, crush injuries from blows to the skull, boat strikes, oil spills and lifeless animals drowned in nets or suffocated after swallowing plastic bags.

Between 1998 and 2003, 906 turtles were brought into the center. The majority of these were loggerheads, but included the occasional green and leatherback turtle. To the credit of Pascual and his team, they released 672 (75.2%) turtles back into the ocean in good condition.

Xray of a loggerhead sea turtle with embedded fishing hook
Turtle No. 820 is x-rayed to determine if the 3-inch hook in her intestine has moved.
Photo - Chris Johnson

On the Canary Islands, 51% of the animals come from Gran Canaria, 24% from Tenerife and 15% Fueteventura, the rest are smaller percentages scattered among the more remote islands. Although a remarkable rescue effort, Pascual stressed that this was only a small percentage of turtles affected by human impacts and many countless animals are left to suffer and die out of sight.

Iballa de Vicente Delgado is one of the biologists working at the center. It was time for sea turtle number 820 to return to one of many secure pools hosted by Instituto de Ciencias Marinas de Taliarte. They support the Center by providing free space for injured turtles. We followed Iballa on the 20-minute journey through town from the 'Recuperation Center' to the coast with the turtle riding in a plastic box in the back seat.

Iballa and Odyssey science co-ordinator Judith Scott, carried the turtle through the maze of laboratories at the Institute of Marine Science and outside to the pool area. It is disturbing to see how many pools are required to accommodate the turtles, but the real shock is seeing the number of animals. Some are new arrivals that recently had an imbedded hook removed, others are long-term residents still trying to perfect the technique of swimming effectively with only three limbs. Amputees are the most common victims and are survivors of entanglement in fishing gear or some other kind of discarded plastic. The line or plastic tightens, eventually cutting off all circulation and the limb dies. If the turtle is found and brought to the center alive, the limb is amputated. Others lose limbs quickly as the tough nylon severs the flesh. Some pools contained turtles with large white patches where Pascual used fiberglass to repair the cracked and split carapace after being hit by boats.

Loggerhead sea turtle entangled in fishing gear
This loggerhead sea turtle was found entangled in fishing gear.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Pascual Calabuig Miranda

However, there is a glimmer of hope for the future. Every few weeks, Pascual and his team are ready to return one or more of their charges to the sea. When rehabilitated animals are ready, school children from around the islands are recruited to participate. The animals are sometimes released from boats, or from beaches on different islands close to where they were found. When released from a beach, the children form a corridor and urge the animal toward the water. Pascual told the crew the biggest problem is stopping the excited children from bursting forth and breaking rank to hug the turtles.

Acting as part of the solution rather than the problem, provides students with an opportunity to understand the threats that sea turtles face. Experiencing a direct connection is usually the best way to engage young people, encouraging them to care about the animals and realize they can only survive if their fragile environment is protected. If some children remember this experience and carry it with them into the future, there may still be hope.


School children release the turtles
When rehabilitated animals are ready for release, school children from around the islands are recruited to participate. The animals are sometimes released from boats, or from beaches on different islands close to where they were found.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Pascual Calabuig Miranda

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Log written by Genevieve Johnson

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