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January 15, 2012

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Butchers Snatch 1,000 Pound Sea Turtle from Sea: How Rescuers Saved Her

by Laura Simpson


Written by Marina Fastigi of Carriacou, Grenada

One late morning in March 2006, the Kido Foundation team was showing a slide presentation to a classroom of children at the Harvey Vale primary school in Carriacou Island, Grenada, West Indies. The presentation was highlighting the desperate plight of sea turtles on our planet, hunted and killed in many cruel ways by humans, directly and indirectly. The children were silently fascinated by the exceptional video projecting almost life-size images of these magnificent animals on their classroom wall.

Minutes later, as the Kido team packed up their gear and was about to leave the school grounds, a 10-year-old boy who was part of the audience rushed to us emphatically reporting that a huge turtle had been carried on a beach to be slaughtered.

“You must go NOW to its rescue!” he urged us.

“How big is that turtle?” we asked the boy. He stretched his arms wide and claimed the animal was much much bigger than that. And it was black, which meant it was a leatherback turtle, the most endangered of sea turtle species.

We wasted no time and got Donnell, the boy, in our Land Rover to guide us to the site.

As we drove for a mile along a dirt track, we came upon the last beach on the extreme south of the island and then saw a huge animal, upside down, helpless and suffering. It was almost too much to bear.

We had mobilized some local volunteers and immediately set forth to rescue and hopefully return this amazing creature to the sea. Of course, we first had to make a deal with the fishers who had unintentionally, they claimed, caught the huge turtle in their fish net…and they had to bring her ashore. Yes, it was a she.

A costly price for their service to help us release the animal was arranged and the operation went forth: first wetting the animal with buckets of sea water to prevent and alleviate dehydration of the skin, then digging a huge hole in the ground alongside her to facilitate the turning over of her estimated over 1,000 lbs of body weight. This took seven people to accomplish.

After righting the animal, we evaluated any physical damage she had endured, we measured her carapace and swiftly tagged her back flippers (an operation similar to human ear piercing) with specially numbered tags provided by the UWI Biology Department in Barbados.

Then came another big effort: to help the behemoth turtle to reach the sea again and swim away safely.

Donnell, our truly courageous rescuer boy, helped and encouraged his new giant friend, the leatherback, all the way and that went on for two hours of pushing and coaching. At last she reached the shallows of the southern lagoon and took off swimming slowly, albeit confusedly, to deeper water across the reef bar. Finally she was free!

But the eventful story of Donnella the leatherback (named after her rescuer) did not end here. From March to September each year, during the sea turtle nesting season, Kido Foundation Monitoring Team patrol the sandy beaches of High North ‘proposed’ National Park in northern Carriacou to ensure that nesting sea turtles have a chance to lay their clutches of eggs undisturbed and that poachers do not take the eggs.

Two months after Donella’s rescue operation, Kido Team met her at night nesting happily in Petit Carenage beach (part of High North Park), though still bearing the scars of the ropes which dragged her on land. We recorded her nesting on the same beach during the 2008 and 2010 seasons and we look forward to seeing her again next year. She still bears the pink scars and measures a little bigger. Her return, every two years, was and is the happiest of omens for our team working with endangered species and for the future of sea turtles.

Donnell, the boy, who now lives and studies overseas, receives our emailed photos of her nesting events and the great news that his 1000 pound sea friend is still roaming the oceans free, thanks to his courage and spirit of justice.

Leatherback turtles have lived for more than 100 million years, sharing the planet with the dinosaurs and outliving them long before humans inhabited the Earth. They are able to travel across oceans and they dive deeper than whales in search of their feeding grounds.

Leatherbacks and other sea turtle species are threatened with extinction unless humans cease the merciless destruction of these amazing creatures and of their habitat, the oceans.

Long line fishing for tuna and swordfish hook turtles and drown them.
Gill nets entrap them, preventing them from reaching the ocean surface to breathe.
Turtle meat and egg consumption and massive beach destruction for developments wipe out entire generations of turtles.
Finally, the multilevel role of Sea turtles in the Marine Web of Life is so important that, if they disappear from the oceans, fish, reefs and other marine species will go down faster too.
To learn more about volunteering at the Kido Foundation and their many ecotourism opportunities, visit their website here.

Story brought to you by The Great Animal Rescue Chase

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