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.
Hoodwinker sunfish were only recently discovered in 2017, after hiding in plain sight amongst the more commonly known 𝘔𝘰𝘭𝘢 𝘮𝘰𝘭𝘢. So, when one of these rare animals was found washed up near Gansbaai, scientists from Dyer Island Conservation Trust and the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation were alerted and eager to work together to learn more about one of our ocean’s most unusual creatures.
The Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation runs several holiday enrichment courses (known as ‘The Marine Science Academy courses’) for young natural historians with a particular interest in marine topics.
As they progress through the courses and climb the grades, many of them express an interest in pursuing a marine related career. This generally starts off as wanting to be a ‘Marine Biologist’, but further research and guidance through our courses makes them aware of the huge variety of careers on offer. Our courses for Grades 6 to 9 provide a general insight into marine sciences, building up to our Grade Ten ‘Young Biologist’ Course, which provides a good combination of experiential learning as well as the opportunity to volunteer in the aquarium, if they want to.
The Marine Science Academy courses culminate in two five-day academic courses offered to Grade Elevens and Twelves (the latter on special request) who are considering studying Marine Sciences at a tertiary level, one on aspects of Biology and the second on Oceanography.
This year’s Turtle Road Trip was different from past ones, as the team of the Turtle Rescue Programme used the opportunity to conduct in-depth field training with the people and organisations working on the ground monitoring and patrolling our coastline – we might be the people that rehabilitate turtles, but the men and women patrolling the hundreds of kilometers of coastline are the first line in saving a turtle’s life.