When a group of Tasmanian fishermen noticed a turtle floating in the Southern Ocean, they thought it was an incongruous sight and decided to investigate. Whatever the thing was, they knew that it was way out of its comfort zone that far south. But when they maneuvered their boat closer, the fishing party saw that it was a turtle – and it was not in a good way. That is when they downed their nets and decided to help the desperate creature.
When the fishermen made this sighting in January 2017, they had been trawling off the southeastern coast of Tasmania. The Australian island state is located in the Southern Ocean and is surrounded by a fascinating array of sea life. Indeed, as well as many species that are native to the region, Tasmanian waters play host to a number of visiting whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds.
So it is safe to say that anyone who spends time on the open seas near Tasmania will see their fair share of marine life. However, when the fishermen spotted one animal on their outing, it gave them pause. That’s because the creature was a loggerhead sea turtle, which is far from native to local waters.
In fact, loggerheads are commonly found in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Plus, they rarely venture as far south as Tasmania, where the water can be much cooler. In January, for instance, the average water temperatures off the coast of the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, is 59 °F. But this can drop to 52 °F in August. These are temperatures, then, that can seriously slow a loggerhead down.
So, worryingly, the 220-pound adult male turtle that the fisherman had found appeared to be very lethargic and sickly. His energy levels were so low, in fact, that he was unable to submerge himself when the boat approached. Furthermore, he was carrying a lot of barnacles. The presence of so many of these sea parasites indicated that the turtle had been inactive, possibly through illness, for some time.
Concerned by the condition of their catch, the fishermen decided to call the Marine Conservation Program. Based out of Hobart, this organization monitors the populations of Tasmania’s ocean-based mammals and seabirds. Its hotline’s primary function is normally to allow the public to report sightings of aquatic mammals in distress. However, it was more than willing to send out some of its operatives to assist this ailing turtle.
So while they awaited help from the Marine Conservation Program, the fishermen tried to pull the loggerhead onto their vessel. “We were so happy to help this turtle in distress,” one of their number, Richard Moore, revealed on Facebook. “[We] spent three hours on the bay at White Beach trying to get him on our boat. [It] was such a great moment when we dragged him on board.”
Soon, though, staff from the Marine Conservation Program came to relieve the fishermen. The deputation from the marine wildlife welfare group then arranged temporary accommodation for the turtle overnight at the nearby Dunalley Fish Market. They also organized a veterinarian appointment for him the following morning. In the meantime, the conservationists set about the painstaking task of removing the barnacles from the patient. They had to carry out this process one barnacle at a time in case the creatures damaged the turtle.
Another of the rescue team’s biggest concerns was the distinct possibility that the loggerhead had consumed trash from the ocean. After all, almost 26,500 tons of plastic makes its way into the world’s seas each year. So it is easy for marine life to ingest dangerous items. And due to a strange similarity to another sea creature, one of the biggest threats to turtles are plastic bags.
Yes, loggerhead sea turtles often confuse floating plastic bags for jellyfish, which are a staple element of the species’ diet. However, once consumed, plastic bags can cause catastrophic damage. They can, for instance, become lodged in a turtle’s intestines, prevent it from absorbing nutrients and even cause the unfortunate animal to suffocate or starve.
With that in mind, it was key that his rescuers got the turtle to a veterinarian as soon as possible. And when they did, they posted an update on the Marine Conservation Program Facebook page. “The turtle was given a full veterinary assessment today, including X-rays to rule out some common culprits,” it read.
Thankfully, the veterinary examination found no trace of plastic in the turtle’s digestive system. This was good news for all those involved and meant that the marine animal experts could concentrate on getting the animal better. As a result, they wasted no time on getting the loggerhead on the road to recovery.
“The turtle has been given fluids and stripped of its barnacle hitch-hikers,” a Marine Conservation Program post updated those following the story. “[It] is in rehab at the MCPs facilities [in Hobart]. Monitoring over the next few days will determine the next step.”
What puzzled his rescuers the most, though, was how the turtle had arrived in Tasmanian waters in the first place. “In Australia, loggerhead turtles breed only on the Great Barrier Reef in [Queensland] and northern [Western Australia],” the Facebook update continued. “However, this animal could belong to one of ten global subpopulations. Genetic analysis of loggerhead turtles found in Tasmania showed some originated from as far away as Oman!”
But the Marine Conservation Program update gave no indication as to what had caused the captured turtle’s lethargic state. It may well have been because the waters off the coast of Tasmania were simply too cold for the creature. That is because water temperatures can have a major – and sometimes tragic – effect on loggerhead sea turtles’ metabolic rates.
You see, loggerheads can become lethargic when entering water between 55 °F and 59 °F. Which, as we have seen, is roughly the range of the sea temperature around Tasmania. If the temperature drops five degrees lower, then, the animals begin to float and take on a stunned appearance. Usually, turtles migrate to warmer waters as and when is needed to avoid this scenario.
Another theory online suggested that the turtle had landed himself in cold water after unwisely following a food source too far south. One Facebook user in Tasmania also claimed that they had spotted an influx of the Portuguese man o’ war on the island’s beaches. And since loggerheads are known to eat the deadly jellyfish-type creature, the poster suggested that this was what the turtle was after.
Tragically, the loggerhead sea turtle has been considered a threatened species since 1978, according to the National Geographic magazine. Threats to the species’ existence include pollution, trawling and, of course, marine garbage. To combat these issues, a number of international conservation efforts are currently under way.
Unfortunately, such efforts were too late for this Tasmanian turtle. In a sad update made in late February 2017, the Marine Conservation Program told its followers that the loggerhead had a serious lung infection that had not responded to treatment. It was all just too much for the poor fellow after his ordeal. With heavy hearts, veterinary experts at the organization took the merciful decision to put the patient down.
So the Tasmanian fishermen had joined a long line of animal lovers doing their utmost to save the loggerhead. It was just unfortunate that their rescue came too late in the day for the Marine Conservation Program to save the poor creature. Nevertheless, with the loggerhead sea turtle in peril, the fishing party did the right thing and should still be applauded.