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Science

Over 500 Baby Sea Turtles Washed Ashore in a Big Storm Off South Africa. Here’s the Rescue Effort

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — An aquarium in South Africa is stretched beyond capacity after more than 500 baby sea turtles were washed up on beaches by a rare and powerful storm and rescued by members of the public.

The little turtles are mostly endangered loggerheads and should be cruising the ocean. Most of them instead will spend the first few months of their lives in newly built plastic tanks at the Turtle Conservation Center at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. The aquarium is rehabilitating around 400 of the roughly 530 sick and injured turtles that were brought in, while sending the rest to two other aquariums to spread the load.

Baby turtles have to fend for themselves from the moment they hatch on beaches and make their way to the ocean.

In South Africa, loggerheads hatch on the northeast coast on the far side of the country from Cape Town. These turtles were likely sucked in by the warm Indian Ocean Agulhas Current, carried around the tip of South Africa and spat out in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Town.

That’s fairly common, said Talitha Noble-Trull, the head of the Turtle Conservation Center. She’s in charge of treating the new arrivals.

What isn’t normal is the powerful storm that recently hit the Cape Town area, leaving hundreds of baby turtles needing help.

The conservation center usually receives a few to maybe 100 stranded young turtles in the three to four months after hatching season. It has a normal capacity of 150 turtles.

“What we haven’t seen before is over 500 turtles in two weeks, which is what the last little bit of time has brought us,” Noble-Trull said. “My budgeting plans for the year have really gone out the window.”

Turtle hatchlings at the Turtle Conservation Centre at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, April 23, 2024.​ The aquarium is stretched beyond capacity after more than 500 baby sea turtles were washed onto beaches by a rare and powerful storm and rescued by members of the public (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

She estimated that each turtle will cost $500 to get back to full strength before being released into the warmer Indian Ocean in a few months. The Turtle Conservation Center has brought in a small army of volunteers to help the aquarium’s full-time staff care for them.

The turtles are ranked according to how sick they are, with some needing intensive care due to injuries, malnutrition or infection. A number is written on each shell to identify them.

While the storm was a major shock to the turtles, who are vulnerable to extreme weather and climate change, it has given Noble-Trull and other conservationists a valuable insight into another increasingly common danger.

A turtle hatchling at the Turtle Conservation Centre at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, April 23, 2024.​ The aquarium is stretched beyond capacity after more than 500 baby sea turtles were washed onto beaches by a rare and powerful storm and rescued by members of the public. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

Many of the turtles had ingested small pieces of plastic, which exited their systems after they arrived at the aquarium. Noble-Trull has a tray of plastic pieces collected in just one day, some as big as a fingernail.

The conservation team normally wouldn’t see that amount of evidence of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Turtles spend almost all their lives in the ocean, apart from when they’re born and when females return to shore to lay eggs. Because of that, they’re “ocean indicators,” Noble-Trull said.

“Little bits of soft plastic, little bits of hard plastic are floating all along the oceans and turtles are eating them. So, for us it’s very important to be collecting and capturing this data. Because these turtles are coming at us with a message. They’re not telling us. They’re shouting it at us. That our oceans are not a safe place for turtles.”

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By GERALD IMRAY Associated Press

A turtle swims in the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, April 23, 2024.​ The centre aquarium is currently rehabilitat​ing and feeding more than 500 turtle hatchlings after they were stranded during the recent storms and intense winds on ​Western Cape coastline​. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)
A turtle hatchling is attended to at the Turtle Conservation Centre at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, April 23, 2024.​ The aquarium is stretched beyond capacity after more than 500 baby sea turtles were washed onto beaches by a rare and powerful storm and rescued by members of the public. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

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