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Behind the scenes: The Olive Ridley Project

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Olive Ridley
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Stuart Philpott was recently on assignment in the Maldives, and while he was there, he took the opportunity to find out more about the Olive Ridley Project

There couldn’t have been a more appropriate time for me to sit down and speak to Maximillian Polyak, lead veterinary surgeon at the Olive Ridley Project (ORP). I had just finished a dive on Kuredu’s house reef and surrounding seagrass beds with Prodivers instructor Anna Rosic. We had been searching for Kuredu’s resident green turtles in the lagoon, which is a popular grazing area. In all, we encountered six turtles ranging in size from a small frisbee to a monster two-metre-diameter ‘daddy’.

Olive Ridley
Turtle at the popular Caves dive site

The lagoon is a very shallow site, ideal for snorkeling and, on this occasion, diving. Kuredu has another site called Caves located on the north side of the island. This is deeper and better suited for divers. The steep-sided wall is honeycombed with overhangs, shallow recesses and hidey holes where sleeping turtles can often be found. If left undisturbed, they can stay underwater without taking another breath for more than seven hours.

Max has been working with turtles for more than 15 years. He explained that the ORP’s mission is to protect sea turtles in their natural habitat by means of rescue, rehabilitation, research and education. Dr Martin Stelfox founded the organization in 2013. While working as a marine biologist in the Maldives, he encountered numerous Olive Ridley turtles caught in ghost nets and made it his goal to find out why this was happening and set up a number of treatment centres. The ORP now have facilities in Kenya, Pakistan, Oman, Seychelles and other countries located in the North Indian Ocean. Max said they offer hands-on training for local vets. Courses are from two weeks to two months duration. There are also talks and workshops designed to educate resort staff and local schools. This year’s annual symposium is being held in Thailand.

Even though the organization is called the Olive Ridley Project, several species of turtle are treated at the medical centres. Max said the Olive Ridley, being more pelagic, is the turtle most affected in the Maldives and accounts for 85% of all injuries, while 10% are hawksbills, 5% green and one loggerhead turtle.

Olive Ridley
Turtle in the shallow lagoon

The injured turtles are brought to the rescue centres for primary care and assessment and then transferred to the Marine Turtle Rescue Centre in Baa Atoll for treatment. Once the patients have been made stable, they are moved to the Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Centre in North Male Atoll, which is used to evaluate the turtles prior to re-release. These facilities are far better equipped to provide the appropriate level of treatment and aftercare. Normally the injured turtles arrive by seaplane thanks to a partnership with Trans Maldivian Airways. This service is offered free of charge. Max said they are seeing a growing number of casualties, so more centres will probably be opening up soon.

The 387-room, four-star Kuredu resort and spa is located in the Lhaviyani Atoll. The lush seagrass beds attract one of the biggest populations of green turtles in the Maldives. More than 80 different turtles have been identified. Prodivers and the ORP work closely together to protect the residents. The Kuredu centre is run by marine biologist Maria Antonia Izurieta.

Research is a very important aspect of her job. Maria gets involved all sorts of data collecting, identifying the local turtle population, monitoring nest sites as well as looking after injured turtles. Snorkellers and divers can go out on guided trips, where Maria talks in more detail about the turtle’s biology, natural habitat and what markings to record. They are encouraged to upload their pictures to a large database, where each turtle is individually identified, including species, movements and location. Max said they would soon publish a paper on the first five years findings.

Olive Ridley
Diver swimming alongside a relaxed turtle

Prodivers regional manager, Ray Van Eeden, suggested that I stay at a beach bungalow located right next to the turtle nesting sites on the north side of the island. About 200 metres offshore was well-known dive site Caves. I managed to visit the site and encountered at least eight different green turtles as well as a solitary hawksbill during my 45-minute dive. They are so used to seeing divers it’s possible to get very close, which is ideal for underwater photographers.

Ray said that a number of the nests were due to hatch any moment, so with some luck I would catch them scampering down the beach. I arrived on Kuredu just as the weather was changing over to monsoon season. This didn’t really affect diving as it would rain at night and stay mainly dry and sunny during the day. But the night it absolutely poured down with rain was the night the eggs decided to hatch! I guess the heavy rainfall on the sand must have triggered the baby turtles. Ray said that this year there were ten nests laid along the sandy beach. The exact number of turtles hatched was not known.

Prodivers resident marine biologist Maria Antonia Izurieta had rigged the nests with motion-actuated cameras and blocked them off with pieces of wood and warning signs so that guests wouldn’t tread all over them. The resort had also turned off any unnecessary lights so that the phototactic baby turtles wouldn’t get confused and head for the light source instead of the open sea. When I returned from dinner, Prodivers staff were running all around my beach bungalow in the dark. The turtles had hatched and some had gone the wrong way. Everybody was searching for them underneath the surrounding bungalows and in the open-air bathrooms. Ray was uncertain if all of the eggs had hatched as they only found 11 baby turtles. Normally, each female lays between 80 to 120 eggs. The nest (also known as a clutch) might still contain fertile eggs, so was roped off and left untouched just in case they hatched later that night or another day.

Olive Ridley
Max at the Kuredu centre

Several years ago, I visited neighbouring Hurawalhi five-star resort. On the way back from our morning dives, Prodivers instructor Mohamed Shameem Ali (Mosti) spotted a ghost net drifting on the surface. Discarded driftnets cause absolute havoc with marine life. The turtles become trapped in the nets and can either drown or their entangled flippers become lacerated and quite often need amputating. Mosti said he had encountered several ghost nets and other floating debris over the past year.

The net was towed into the shallows at Hurawalhi and when we looked closer there was a small hawksbill and an Olive Ridley caught up inside. Sadly, the Olive Ridley was dead but the little hawksbill was still alive. When we untangled the fishing line, one of its rear flippers was almost severed off. The turtle required immediate medical attention, so Mosti took it to the centre located on Kuredu, where it was flown out to one of the main treatment facilities.

Olive Ridley
Rescuing a hawksbill from a discarded net

When there is an entanglement injury, Max has a set of procedures to follow. Care for the wound, and then try and save the limb. The two main facilities are well equipped with laboratories, x-ray, ultrasound machines, endoscopes and surgical rooms. Max said ‘we even use stem cell therapy if needed’. This is an expensive, cutting-edge technology that basically repairs or regenerates damaged tissue. Max explained that when the turtles are trapped on the surface for some time this usually causes buoyancy disorder. They get stressed, their lungs can tear and fill with fluid, which means they can’t dive (known as floating syndrome). Max puts them through weight therapy, removes any trapped gas trapped in the stomach and then re-trains them to use their lungs. The facilities also have a number of fresh sea water tanks varying is size and depth, which are used for patient recovery and rehabilitation.

At least my story has a happy ending. A few days later, I was told that the injured hawksbill had responded well to treatment, although its flipper couldn’t be saved. Max said ‘we still don’t know much about Olive Ridleys, but we are collaborating with industries, communities and governments to help safeguard their existence and develop solutions where we can all coexist’. Six out of the seven species of sea turtles are on the IUCN endangered Red List. The ORP is the largest and first established veterinary team in the Maldives. They became a UK charitable organization in 2016 and survives on grants and donations – you can even adopt a turtle!

Olive Ridley
Always treat turtles with respect

ORP rules for swimming with turtles

Be quiet. When swimming up to a turtle, do so as quietly as possible because loud noises may scare them away. Snorkellers should minimize splashing and talking.

Do not disrupt the turtle’s natural behaviour. Watch and enjoy!

Always approach turtles from the side. This gives them a clear path ahead if they want to swim away.

Do not chase after the turtle! This can cause severe stress to the turtle.

Do not touch the turtle. They can feel your touch and do not enjoy being petted.

Do not swim directly above the turtle. They are reptiles and need to come to the surface to breathe.

Do not get too close. Turtles can deliver a very strong bite.

Do not try and feed the turtles. They do not need your help to find food and could accidentally bite you.

Olive Ridley
Turtle at the Caves dive site

ORP Divers code of conduct

Pay attention. When encountering a turtle while diving observe them closely to see what they are doing. Do not disturb resting turtles. Always keep a distance of one and a half metres.

Be still. If a turtle is swimming towards you, keep still and avoid sudden movements.

Give them space. When encountering turtles resting in caves or under overhangs, be careful to give them enough room so they can surface to breathe.

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Mark Evans
Scuba Diver's Editorial Director Mark Evans has been in the diving industry for nearly 25 years, and has been diving since he was just 12 years old. nearly 40-odd years later and he is still addicted to the underwater world.
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