The Traveling Turtle

The Traveling Turtle

By Sealand Ambassador Maryke Musson

Travel /ˈtrav(ə)l/ - to take a journey, typically of some length. The movement between distant geographical locations. A traveller is a person who is travelling, and could be a gypsy or a nomadic person. A traveller is also defined as a person who holds New Age values and leads an itinerant and unconventional lifestyle.

Travelling as we know it has come to a sudden halt, a forced pause, a temporary cessation. However, for migrating animals, in the sea and on land, their incredible journeys continue. One such animal, who has found new paths and crossed an entire ocean, is the ultimate traveller, now world-famous nomad and rather unconventional sea turtle named Yoshi.

In 1997 a Japanese fishing vessel rescued a tiny and injured loggerhead sea turtle, and cared for her onboard until they reached the port of Cape Town. They contacted the Two Oceans Aquarium and requested that the staff take over care of this wounded animal.

The Aquarium had no intention of keeping sea turtles at the time, as turtles are known to be oceanic travellers, but took Yoshi in (she was named by the Captain, after the cook onboard, Yoshitaro, who was small in stature – just like the little turtle). Yoshi’s health and injury were monitored, and the team of biologist learnt a great deal of turtle care and husbandry while keeping Yoshi safe during the riskiest years of a sea turtle’s life.

Only 1, or possibly 2 out of every 1000 sea turtles survive from hatching to maturity, so for the time being, Yoshi was lucky and safe. 

Sea turtles can live for 80 to a 100 years, and sexually mature anywhere between 18 – 30 years. Over the years the Aquarium received many more stranded and injured turtles, and successfully rehabilitated and released most of them. In 2015 the team satellite tagged two critically endangered Hawksbill turtles after rehabilitation and followed their incredible journeys for 14 months. The larger female headed straight up the east coast, crossed the Mozambique channel and spent the rest of her time being tracked around Madagascar – nesting site to Hawksbills. The smaller turtle headed up the west coast, and reached Gabon before the satellite tag batteries ran down. These two travelling turtles showed the success of the rehabilitation efforts, and the ability of recovered turtles to adapt really well back into the wild.

This prompted the then curator of the Aquarium, Maryke, to investigate the possibility of releasing Yoshi, who has been cared for by the Aquarium for about 18 years already. Reference to a Loggerhead that was released after 10 years at a research station in Mexico and then travelled 10 000 km across the Pacific ocean sealed the deal and the team started preparing Yoshi for her journey. It was like preparing for a never-ending Camino to some extent and required getting Yoshi, the traveller and hopefully nomad, fit and strong for life back in the ocean. The ocean of course poses many threats, from ghost fishing gear, to large vessels as well as predators and pollution.

Yoshi grew to a formidable 183 kilograms in a safe environment, and was big and strong enough to face many of these hazards. Through a stringent exercise regime over 18 months with regular health check-ups she was certified fit and healthy for her journey and issued with a blank visa. She was released off Cape Point in December 2017, satellite tag on her back, heading into the infinite ocean.

Female sea turtles will always head to the areas where they hatched from to breed and nest, and we assumed that Yoshi would show us where she was originally from by heading towards a nesting site, but she had different plans, just like a traveller with an unconventional lifestyle.

She first headed up the west coast, got her passport stamped in Namibia and again as she entered Angola. She navigated serious fishing grounds and went very close to shore near various mining sites. After 6 months of swimming (mostly against the current – that exercise regime paid off), she decided to turn around and headed back south. 

By December 2018 she passed Cape Town again and started heading across the Indian ocean. At this point in time she had covered about 42 km’s per day – 365 consecutive marathons. But she was now on a mission and increased her pace to 45 km’s per day, travelled past Madagascar and headed for Australia! In February 2020 she reached Australia – an incredible trans-oceanic journey. A world-record and first ever recorded movement of a loggerhead sea turtle between Africa and Australia. The Australian researchers were ecstatic, assuming that she might originally be from Australia and heading for the loggerhead nesting sites in Western Australia – but again, Yoshi the traveller, followed her own sea path and continued to make her way along the Western Australian coast while passing all the nesting sites. 

A plan was put in place to try and re-tag her as her satellite tag battery was sure to run down soon. The Aussie turtle experts headed out to where she was sending satellite signals from, and although they could hear her ‘ping’ did not get sight of her, however, they spotted 40 other loggerhead turtles. Yoshi lead them to an incredible turtle foraging site with a high density of loggerhead turtles of all ages and sizes. They had no idea that such a foraging congregation existed off the coast of Australia. True to Yoshi’s favourite past time, eating, she lead them straight to a turtle foraging party (similar to Veld and Sea’s amazing foraging parties – just without the Veld). This was regarded as a new discovery, and was in a safe marine protected area. Not only was Yoshi a celebrity and world record holder for longest migratory distance tracked, she now also qualified as a fantastic scientific field guide.

Yoshi is currently enjoying the rich feeding grounds off 80 mile beach in Western Australia. A very remote and safe area with many other sea turtles around. She is not looking for a mate or nesting sites, she is travelling and navigating, long distances between geographical locations. She has covered almost 40 000 km since her release in December 2017. Yoshi also continues to spread a story of hope, resilience, survival, care and looking after our ocean so that Yoshi and many other animals can travel and live safely in this incredible underwater world. Yoshi was patient, it was safest for her to be at the Aquarium, when she was small and vulnerable, and now she is reaping the benefits.

With a bit of patience we will all get to pack our Sealand bags and travel again, but for now, it is safest to stay home and plan our future travels and dream about Yoshi’s 40 000 km journey.

The Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation continues to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles and currently have more than 20 little hatchlings in the turtle hospital. The little patients get around the clock care to ensure full recovery and getting strong and fit for release towards summer. Every little hatchling has a survival story – from arriving with serious injuries such as missing flippers, being hypothermic and compromised with various medical complications such as pneumonia and ear infections – to gaining strength (and muscles), learning to dive and getting those protective shells to harden so that they stand the best possible chance of survival back in the ocean. In celebration of international turtle day, turtle rescues and rescuers and turtle releases, whose name is Charlie.

Little Sealand, once recovered, will get to travel the ocean, like all of us are so passionate about, again soon!

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Love the Ocean.

To date the Non-Profit orgnanisation, Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation, together with the Two Oceans Aquarium, have rescued, rehabilitated and released more than 600 endangered sea turtles. A truly successful marine conservation programme.

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