Earlier this year I had the privilege of crossing paths with Maryke Musson, CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation. Little did I know that she would become one of the most influential people in my life. She did not only introduce me to the Education Foundation and the numerous conservation programs they are running at the aquarium but also told me about the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation program they’ve been running for more than a decade already – something I was particularly interested in.

As an environmentalist myself, I’ve always had a bit of a thing against any institute keeping wild animals captive, Maryke, however, opened my eyes to a whole different world at the aquarium and I soon realized this place and what she and her team are doing, are quite unique and unlike any other aquarium.

With the exception of Bob (below), one of their longer-stay sea turtle patients, who you often see swimming past when walking through the aquarium, there’s a whole rehabilitation center filled with a variety of turtle species of all ages behind closed doors. Unfortunately, these turtles are all fighting for their survival in one way or another and most of them are in a sort of intensive care unit being treated by the turtleologist team, with the aim of being released back into the wild.

By now most of us are aware of the constant threat plastic pollution in the ocean has been posing to these vulnerable species. Worldwide, six of the seven sea turtle species are classified as threatened or endangered due to human actions and lifestyles.

Unfortunately, there is now a new threat spiraling their extinction. Even though the turtle team has seen turtle strandings along the coast of South Africa throughout the years, the increase in strandings has been worldwide. Due to human-caused climate change speeding up the melting of our polar ice caps, we are disturbing one of its most important forces — ocean currents. These currents transport both heat and nutrients around the planet, playing a vital role in our climate and weather patterns, as well as the lives of many marine animals — such as turtles.

Unfortunately, these changes in the currents are disastrous for these animals. This has been witnessed both on the coast of America as well as Africa at the meeting point of two major ocean currents. It is now feared that these once-reliable currents are changing, triggering mass casualties of critically endangered species such as sea turtles. The colder currents the turtles end up in stun them and leave them stranded on beaches along coastlines, making them vulnerable to all kinds of predators.

As the polar ice melts it adds gigatons of freshwater to the ocean every day. Freshwater is lighter than saltwater and floats at the surface, unable to drive the currents. This also implicates turtles are now swimming further than usual in search of food sources, but when the cold waters suddenly close in, the turtles go into shock.

Thankfully Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation’s Sea Turtle Rescue team has grown to a large network over the years with volunteers all around the coast of South Africa, that if they make it in time, still manage to rescue a lot of these turtles and take them in for rehabilitation.

The turtles that do end up being rescued get taken into a sort of ICU unit at the aquarium as usually, they are in critical condition by the time they get to the Aquarium. From x-rays, CT scans, surgeries and autopsies, all being carried out by the small group of volunteers working as part of the turtle program.

Part of this rehabilitation program’s success is due to the environmental enrichment course (also referred to as behavioral enrichment) the turtles go through. It 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. As of recently, they have also started working with a satellite tracking system they put on the turtles once ready to be released into the wild again. This gives the team the opportunity of real-time tracking and mapping the turtle’s paths and witnessing how, in time, they not only survive but thrive once back in the ocean.

The astonishing thing about these animals are their fight for survival. Most of them arrive barely still alive, but once they are being cared for it is as if natural instinct for survival takes over and most of them do recover, despite all the trauma they went through. And once rehabilitated and released back into the ocean, some may still go on living for another 50 years, they are after all one of the oldest species on the planet. This rehabilitation program can take months, or even years though, like Yoshi who spent 20 years at the aquarium before she was released back into the wild.

Every year, members of the public, and the aquarium’s partners through their Turtle Rescue Network, find and transport up to 200 loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings to their rehabilitation facility. Through their ‘Adopt-a-Hatchling’ program, you have the opportunity to donate money towards the recovery and rehabilitation of this endangered species. The little hatchlings that arrive at their facility will spend around 9 months with them, during which they usually increase in size tenfold. Once the conditions are right, they take them by boat to warmer waters off Cape Point and release them back into their proper home.

On average, each hatchling costs them around R8000 ($530) to rehabilitate, at roughly R30 ($2) per day/per hatchling. A contribution of R2500 ($165) or R5000 ($330) will go a long way in the rehabilitation journey of each of these special sea turtles.

If you decide to donate towards the hatchling rehabilitation, an added bonus is that you will have the chance to name the little sea turtle you choose to sponsor. The team at the aquarium name them numerically, as they arrive, however, they do think that these special animals are more than just a number, and so deserve a name too!

There are two options when you donate:

  • Full donation of R5000 (+/-$330) will give you the sole naming rights to your chosen sea turtle. You will also receive a certificate with more details of your new sea turtle friend.
  • Partial donation of R2500 (+/-$165) will allow you to give your new sea turtle friend a first name, if you are the first partial donor. Or a surname, if you are the second partial donor. You will also receive a certificate with more details of your new sea turtle friend.

Follow the link for more info and to donate: https://aquariumfoundation.org.za/product/adopt-a-hatchling/

These precious animals are part of our planet, part of our delicate web of life and it’s up to us to save them from extinction — to prohibit another link in the ecosystem from breaking off. The changes in the ocean won’t just harm turtles, the impact on all of life could be dramatic. If the ocean dies, we die.

You can also contribute by purchasing your favorite photograph from this series as a limited edition A3 fine art print. 50% of all proceeds will go towards to Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation program. Contact me, Willem at willemj@live.com to place your order.

Thanks for reading!

~ Willem

Note: All photos taken on 35mm and 120 Kodak Tri-x film and self processed by hand.

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About the author

Avatar - Willem van den Heever

Willem van den Heever

I'm an independent filmmaker, photographer, writer, environmentalist and explorer from Cape Town, South Africa. In 2015 I graduated with a BA Film Arts degree from The Open Window Institute of Film Arts, in Pretoria, South Africa and have since travelled to...

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  1. Wow! This article (and the photos) should be in National Geographic! Excellent work. I think your black and white images lend a realism to the story that color would not, odd as that may sound. Please keep shooting and writing!