World Sea Turtle Day today. And there are few better friends to the sea turtles’ in the Maldives than the Coco resorts Coco Bodu Hithi and Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu. They have been long-time supporters of the Oliver Ridley Project with fund raising and public outreach, but this past year brought a pioneering, first ever in the Maldives “marine veterinarian”. Marine Biologist Dr. Claire Petros (from the Oliver Ridley Project) was appointed to operate turtle rescue centres at the resorts. Coco resort described their work in the blog…
- “Guests of Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu and Coco Bodu Hithi have been incredibly generous in their efforts to support the project by donating funds directly and by purchasing signature Olive Ridley turtle toys at the resorts. In May 2016, we received the target of the funds required to start construction of the first rescue centre at Coco Palm….As planned, [the centre includes] a dedicated veterinary surgeon has joined our team to look after the rescue centre!”
She provides treatment and ever surgery to ill and injured turtles at the resort turtle rescue centres. Hotellier Maldives also did a profile on her work focusing on her clinic…
- “’My main role is to care for the injured turtles that we find around the country with the intention of being able to release them when recovered as quickly as possible.’ Injured sea turtles are not a rare sight in the Maldives waters. Though turtles are a protected species in the Maldives, their foes range from abandoned fishing nets, and people, who are hungry for their meat, eggs, and shells. Ghost nets are nets that have been discarded, abandoned or lost in the ocean. They can continue to entangle endangered and vulnerable animals such as marine turtles, birds, sharks, rays, dolphins and whales, long after they have been discarded, abandoned or lost. ‘Turtles are very attracted to ghost gear as it often contains an easy meal, but unfortunately during the process of trying to eat the fish entrapped in the nets, the turtles themselves become entangled,’ she explained. ‘Sadly, the effort to escape is so great by the animal that it exerts enough force to break its own bones and the extent of the injuries suggests that turtles may suffer for weeks before dying, or hopefully be rescued’.”
Hatchling scampers to a new live at sea during our 2015 Velaa visit.
Q: What is the best way increase the odds of sea turtle hatchlings surviving?
A: Put them in nurseries to help them grow stronger?
Q: Buzzzzzz! Nope. The fairly common practice of collecting hatchlings and protecting them by nurturing them in special nursery pools turns out to cause long term problems for the turtles.
World Turtle Day today is the opportunity “to bring attention to, and increase knowledge of and respect for, turtles and tortoises, and encourage human action to help them survive and thrive”. Most people know about the dangers of plastic refuse to turtles (they get caught in six-pack rings and mistake plastic bags for jelly fish which they try to eat). But even those keen to help the critters are less aware of the issues with well-intended turtle nurseries.
The nursery misconception stems from the “numbers game”. As Marine Biologists Tess Moriarty and Dee Bello (who kindly provided most of the research for this piece) from Velaa resort (THE Turtle resort – “Velaa” means “Turtle” in Dhivehi) describes, “For turtles it is always a numbers game, they have many threats to their survival and it is commonly known that many do not make it to adulthood.” The concept of nurseries is to allow the hatchlings to grow to a more significant size where much fewer predators would be able to manage eating them.
Unfortunately, turtle nurseries have a number of problems for the turtles they are trying to help…
- Predator Dangers – Turtles may evade predators when small, but then don’t learn to and how to avoid them later in life which keeps them vulnerable.
- Diet – Nursery turtles don’t get to eat the staples of the normal ocean diet like jellyfish or sargassum.
- Orientation – One of the miracles of turtle procreation is how they instinctively head to the water’s edge on birth, but then also they come back to where they were born to nest s adults. Studies show that taking hatchlings on birth into nurseries disorients them and they don’t return to nest.
So what CAN be done to help these endangered little tykes? Dee offers up the following…
- Hatcheries: This technique is when the nests are relocated from where the female lays the eggs on the beach to a different location. This is used on beaches that have severe erosion or flooding problems and thus the nests would not survive, nests that are too close to the shore line and would get inundated and mostly on beaches where human poaching of eggs for food is abundant. This method actively saves many eggs and ensured they can develop and hatch, thus increasing the number of hatchlings making it to the sea.
- Fencing the nests: Shielding both the hatchery and on the beach deters humans from poaching eggs from the nests as they are under surveillance. It also ensures that there must be someone present to release the hatchlings into the sea when they emerge from the nest and thus predation from crabs and birds is greatly reduced.
- Protection laws: Creating laws that prohibit the killing or possessing turtle products it directly influences their populations. The protection of adult females laying eggs, poaching of the eggs on the beaches and the capturing of turtles in the sea, increases the amount of turtles and nests on the beaches.
Of course, all these measures are focused on the young turtles. But even when they get all grown up, they still could use our help in surviving (especially since human actions cause many of the adult hazards)…
- Turtle Exclusion Devices (TED). Turtles need to breath air in order to survive and unfortunately when they get trapped in nets they are unable to do so. This can be avoided using TED’s where turtles can escape the nets intended for fishing other fish.
- Research: Understanding where turtles migrate to (using advanced tools like satellite tracking), at what times and their feeding and breading patterns can help aim protection to make it more successful and increase awareness.
- Awareness: By spreading the word about the turtle population’s vulnerability, more people understand their situation and need to protect them. This awareness leads to leads to less poaching and donations that support more conservation projects.
Turtles all the way down…
Turtles aren’t just some namesake mascot for Velaa (“Velaa” means turtle in Maldivian). They are more like its spirit animal that imbues the property from top to bottom. And everywhere in between.
From top, the entire layout of the resort is designed to look turtle shaped from an aerial view. The water villas have been arranged in an almond shape to resemble a turtle head, and 4 jetties surround the circular island to complete the chelonian outline. From below, Velaa is itself a turtle nesting ground (as we so fortunately witnessed when we visited).
But the today’s “Best Of” distinction is more about the in between bit where the essence of the turtle is stylishly reflected in every nook and cranny of the property. The most distinctive design element is its simple, chic logo motif which pervades the resort. A football-like mesh pattern of hexagons and pentagon evoking the characteristic patterns on a terrapin shell. I’ve included just a few snaps I took of the restaurant, the Tower bar, the spa. And at bottom is their cappuccino decorated with cocoa in the same distinctive pattern (thanks Belinda).
One of the new items on House Reef profiles is the “Resident” field. This notes if there is a particular creature who is regularly found on the house reef and who can be distinctly identified. The first “Resident” I met in the Maldives was “Camilla”, a turtle on the Vakarufalhi house reef.
Turtles are quite readily identifiable by their shell markings which has allowed a few marine biologists to take Snorkel Spotting to a whole new level. The most spottable grounds might just be the eponymous “Turtle Reef” in the North Male atoll. This terrapin terroir is closest to the Makanudhu resort, but the the nearby One & Only Reethi Rah really gives the excursion the first class treatment (see video link above). Reports Reethi’s Scott Le Roi…
“Turtle reef is where we go for the Turtle Adventure trip (every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday). It is one of the most popular reefs we go to. The reef is next to Makundhoo resort, which is about a 25 minute dhoni ride or about 7 minutes in a speedboat from our resort. We take lots of private trips there as well and the dive centre also do there evening snorkel there on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It’s a hawksbill turtle feeding ground so there is always a good chance of seeing lots of turtles there. The most I have seen in one snorkel is 23! The turtles here are pretty relaxed. As it is their home territory, they don’t feel threatened by people, so our guests can have a really amazing encounter with them; Swimming alongside them or turtles coming up to breathe right in front of them! It is also a very beautiful reef. Nice corals and fish life, sometimes sharks and eagle rays.”
In the spirit of Snorkel Spotter, the Reethi Rah marine biologist also runs a spotting program (see pictures below)…
“Since February 2012 our resident Marine Biologist has been identifying the different turtles seen during the Turtle Adventure Snorkel at both Turtle Reef and West Point Reef. Every turtle has a unique scale pattern on each side of the head which it can be identified by. Photographed turtles are uploaded into a photo identification database to try to establish their population size, foraging sites and migration patterns. So far over 100 different Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) have been identified at Turtle Reef and over 40 at West Point Reef. Many of these turtles are common residents of the reef and can be seen regularly.”
For people interesting in “Turtle Spotting” across the Maldives, the Four Seasons Marine Savers’ Turtle ID Project takes this ID programme to Maldives-wide level.
A real ‘Born Free’ story in the Maldives are the turtle nurseries that a few resorts support. Our family delighted at the nursery tank that Filtheyo had and visiting it fostered our daughter Isley’s love of turtles and her adoption of them as her favourite creature to this day. But, Four Seasons Kuda Huraa have taken a page from their sister resort of Landaa Giraavaru to creative a comprehensive turtle conversation programme around their newly launched nursery and discovery center.
Kuredu may be the destination for big, monster turtles in the wild. But at the complete other end of the spectrum, Kuda Huraa is now the place to experience these charming critters up close and personal in their infancy. Taking a page from their sister resort’s (Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru) stunning Marine Discovery Centre which focuses on Mantas and Anenome Fish, Kuda Huraa has opened a comparable centre but with a focus on turtles…
“Five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles live in the Maldives, and two of these are regularly seen. The critically endangered hawksbill turtle lives on coral reefs, while the endangered green turtle feeds on seagrass, keeping the seabed healthy and productive. The Resort’s Kuda Velaa (‘Little Turtles’) Protection Programme works with island communities across the Maldives to increase awareness of turtle conservation and protect nests from poachers. The project also gives endangered green turtles a head start in life by rearing a select number of hatchlings from protected nests for up to 15 months to improve their chance of survival in the wild. For the first nine months they are kept in land-based pools before they are relocated to larger enclosures in the lagoon where they will start to forage for themselves on sea grasses, adapting them to the wild. Guests can attend daily turtle feeding sessions to learn more about Kuda Huraa’s most delicate little residents.”
Not just kids are enthralled by these terrapin tolders. In fact, this month’s Harper Bazaar features international model and actress Nargis Fakhri posing with them (see photo above) in her shoot there…
“’It’s awe-inspiring; I feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere,’ she says. Her favourite part of the Four Seasons Maldives at Kuda Huraa is the children’s activities section. She’s also thrilled about shooting with turtles, something that the Bazaar team has captured in this shoot.”
Snorkelling and diving in the Maldives spoils you for colourful scenery and sealife and one of the popular favourites are the sea turtle. Several resorts, like Filitheyo and Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, operate turtle hatcheries and nurseries.
We have always readily seen turtles while diving and snorkelling in the Maldives, so choosing a top spot for them would be difficult. But Microsoft colleague and fellow Maldives enthusiast Keith Miller reckons it has to be Kuredu. In particular, a dive site known as ‘Turtle Cave’ or ‘Turle Wall’ Keith estimates that on a bad day you see a dozen turtles and on a good day you can see as many as 40!