However, my most recent work and research has involved sea turtles, a species I am very passionate about working with and protecting. There are seven sea turtle species of which three species are critically endangered, two are endangered, one is threatened, and one has an unknown conservation status. Why do I mention this? Sea turtles are ocean ambassadors, they play an important part of the planet’s food web, and the maintain the health of the world’s oceans.
So what? Healthy oceans are vital for the wellbeing of our planet and all its inhabitants, including humans. Healthy oceans help regulate climate and reduce climate change impacts. Additionally, ocean currents distribute heat across the globe, which aids in regulating temperatures and weather. The ocean also absorbs over 90% of the heat and approximately 30% of carbon dioxide emissions produced by human activities. Moreover, the ocean provides millions of livelihoods, particularly in developing countries, that stimulate local and global economies, and it provides a vast array of recreational opportunities that help the coastal and marine tourism industry.
Also, if you like breathing, scientists estimate that 50-80% of the oxygen production on Earth comes from the ocean (pretty important if you ask me!).
And those are just some reasons why healthy oceans are important. So, the main way I have decided to help protect our oceans is through researching, caring, rehabilitating and raising awareness about sea turtles.
Bob, the green turtle (Image credit: Lisa Beasley)
How do I plan to do that? Through research, behavioral observations and an intense enrichment program. Environmental enrichment (also referred to as behavioral enrichment), provides species-appropriate challenges, opportunities and stimulation, and includes the regular provision of dynamic environments, cognitive challenges and social opportunities. An enriched environment should promote a range of normal behaviors that animals find rewarding as well as allowing animals to learn how to and positively respond to potential stressors.
The process for the creation of this enrichment and research program began with personal hands-on experience at rehabilitation facilities. I had previously worked, on and off, for two years with ARCHELON Rescue Centers rehabilitation and education teams (in Athens, Greece), which allowed me to gain first-hand knowledge. Furthermore, I began interning with the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation approximately six months prior to starting my research with Bob. While interning with them I gained even more hands-on experience and got the opportunity to speak and learn even more about sea turtle rehabilitation and husbandry from their top sea turtle specialists. Once I was comfortable and confident in my knowledge, I proceeded to conduct an up-to-date literature review on husbandry and enrichment related materials associated with sea turtles. However, due to a lack of published comprehensive enrichment and husbandry guidelines, there are several gaps in knowledge, which I am attempting to cover through my personal experiences and knowledge I have gathered from various sea turtle specialists over the years.
Bob forages for his seaweed, like he would in the wild
Alex observing Bob in the I&J Ocean Exhibit after an enrichment session
The hope and aim is that these enrichment activities will stimulate, and almost inspire, Bob to gain back some of the natural behaviors that he is now lacking. This includes behaviour like hiding, aggressive feeding and the flight response, which will increase his successful release and survival in the wild. And even though the program is still new, I am already super excited with what I am observing and how Bob is reacting, which gives me hope and joy that our sweet Bob will eventually be able to return to the great blue!
Bob feeding off a specially made artificial rock, to encourage natural foraging behaviour.
Claudine van Zyl completed her Work Imtegrated Learning (WIL) internship with us last year. Her research project was: ‘The characterisation of plastics in stranded post-hatchling loggerhead turtles along the South African coastline from 2015 to 2020’.
Bob, a green turtle in our care, has been with us since November 2014. While he is not ready for release yet, we are preparing him so that he has the best chance of survival back in the big blue. Alex Panagiotou, one of our turtle team specialists, is working with Bob through enrichment programmes and research.
Grant Blakeway completed the 2020 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge by solo rowing 4 800 km across the Atlantic. He did this to highlight the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean.