Ula, a sick baby turtle, is bobbing on top of the water of a display tank at Durban’s Ushaka Sea World like a cork – ‘positively buoyant’ they call it, leaving veterinary scientists perplexed as to what has caused this. Nompilo Kunene reports
First published in The Witness
Ula, which means Jewel of the Sea, is suffering from excessive intestinal gas, and also has a high white blood cell count, indicative of serious illness.
The seven month-old critically endangered leatherback turtle captured the hearts of the public, as well as UShaka staff, after lifeguards found her washed ashore, severely dehydrated, on Ushaka beach in February this year.
Another two-week-old turtle hatchling named Valentine, also rescued on the same day, did not survive. But Ula, and hatchling sibling, Sam, both responded well to intensive care at uShaka Sea World’s rehabilitation centre, gaining weight and strength from daily diets of mulched sardines and a specially designed gel food.
When rescued, the two hatchlings were barely 4cm long. Both have since grown three-fold, now measuring, from tail to head, more than 12 cm.
Then, a few weeks ago, senior aquarist at Ushaka, Karin Fivas, noticed that Ula wasn’t diving as usual, only floating on the surface.
Blood tests subsequently revealed an excessive white blood cell count and xrays, a build-up of intestinal gas.
“We don’t know what is causing this. She is eating well, but beginning to bob about in her tank like a cork. This is not normal,” said Fivaz.
Fivaz said Ula was now on a course of antibiotics administered by Ushaka veterinarians, Dr Carel Knox and Dr Francois Lampen. A follow-up blood sample and other tests will be done in two weeks.
If Ula enjoys a successful recovery, she will, like others before her, ultimately be released back into the ocean once big enough to face the odds of life at sea.
“We go out about 10 nautical miles and put them in the water. We have no guarantee that they will survive, but at least they are given the chance,” said Fivaz.
Ushaka’s turtle hatchling rehabilitation and release programme has been active for several years, and in 2012, a custom-made outdoor rehabilitation centre was officially opened to house young turtles recovering from trauma.
The rehabilitation centre has its own laboratory for weight assessments, minor medical observations and treatments. Visitors to uShaka are able to view the young turtles throughout the day, and, at specified times, watch them being fed and cared for.
Young turtles are kept in the rehabilitation centre until deemed fit for release, usually after they reach at least two years of age. Last year, uShaka rehabilitated five young turtles, all of which were successfully released.
- Nompilo Kunene served an internship with Roving Reporters in 2014 as a Phemba Kahle press officer for the Makotikoti Arts Project.