Training Bob to be release-ready
Alexandra Panagiotou is one of our valued members of the turtle rehabilitation team. Originally from Athens, Greece, she now lives in Cape Town and has worked with us since 2020. She has a BSc in Natural Resource Conservation, and a MSc in Conservation Science and Policy.
My name is Eva-Maria Alexandra Panagiotou (but I go by Alexandra), and I am a wildlife conservationist, educator and rehabilitator from Athens, Greece. I  moved to South Africa last year. I have a MSc in Conservation Science and Policy, and a BSc in Natural Resources Conservation with a specialization in Wildlife Conservation and Ecology. Over the years I have had the honor of working for many different organizations around the world, primarily as a wildlife rehabilitator and an environmental educator.

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)

Currently, I am working with the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation to get our awesome green turtle Bob released back into his natural habitat. Bob is a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) who was brought to Two Oceans Aquarium in 2014 as an injured, sub adult turtle. He suffered from severe bruising and a possible fracture of the plastron, was experiencing loss of scales, exposed bone, and was also positively buoyant. Furthermore, the fracture had developed an infection and the bacteria had spread to the blood and caused an inflammation of the brain causing encephalitis. He had also ingested plastic, a mix of plastic bags and balloons. Despite all this Bob was persistent and resilient, and with the help of his incredible turtle team he pushed through. However, these injuries caused Bob some permanent damage, which have affected some of his natural behaviors.
That is where I come in! My goal is help Bob regain, relearn, and “awaken” some of his natural behaviors, so that he can eventually be release back into his natural habitat!

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.

So, a lot of the work is also trial and error. My day starts with a 30-minute observation of Bob, where I note some of his behaviors and actions that I have deemed valuable for his rehabilitation process. This includes how much time he spends diving, does he exhibit any stereotypical behaviors or patterns, does he show any signs of aggression etc. I then look over and tweak the enrichment program for the day. When I work with Bob I have three enrichment activities planned: one sensory enrichment (introduction of natural/familiar scents, sounds, visual & tactile stimuli), one feeding enrichment (novel food items and devices, scattered/ hidden food to promote natural feeding behaviors) and one cognitive enrichment (provisions that present mental challenges->work for reward). These kinds of enrichments focus on the behaviors I want to work on improving with Bob. However, I always try to also include enrichment activities and/or devices that also act as social (intra/interspecies stimuli and training), physical (activities that help Bob be more active such as swimming laps with him and target training), and occupational (natural or non-natural objects that can be manipulated to stimulate natural behaviors) enrichment.

Bob forages for his seaweed, like he would in the wild

Alex observing Bob in the I&J Ocean Exhibit after an enrichment session

Each time I introduce an enrichment device or activity to Bob, I observe how he responds and interacts with it for 30 minutes, and once the time is up I remove the enrichment and observe him for another 30 minutes to see if and how his behaviors have changed after the introduction of the enrichment.

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. 

P.S. If you are ever at the Two Oceans Aquarium and see a curly haired girl with a notebook sitting at the I&J Ocean Exhibit, staring into the exhibit – that is me (that is usually where I do my control/ no-enrichment observations of Bob)! Come say hi and ask me more about what Bob and I have been up to, and maybe even take a moment and observe our amazing and majestic Bob for yourself!
We are launching our Treat a Turtle programme 2 March 2021. If you would like to contribute towards Bob’s rehabilitation, please consider making a donation and help us get Bob back into the ocean. Check out our shop 2 March! 


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Learning to swim

Learning to swim

Learning to swim is empowering – especially for women who want to work in the ocean community! Having the confidence to explore the water, feeling safe when in a boat, or simply having access to swimming as a recreational activity are things that many take for granted. A number of the incredible women at the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation took the step of learning to swim with Swimmable – taking their first steps into this new way of exploring the world (and making their first splashes in the water of the Aquarium’s I&J Ocean Exhibit).

read more
A year of rehab and recovery for Nobomvu

A year of rehab and recovery for Nobomvu

On 14 July 2021, a loggerhead turtle entangled in ghost-netting was in dire need of intervention and was rescued on the beach in Gansbaai. Through the Turtle Network, this adult, stranded, cold-stunned sea turtle arrived at the Two Oceans Aquarium & was received by the turtle rehab team. This turtle was surprisingly strong during admittance into hospital; lifting her head, resisting restraint & also presented with no external injuries needing immediate intervention.

read more
Hoodwinked by a Mola tecta

Hoodwinked by a Mola tecta

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.

read more