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Turtles did not die during Mabul Turtle Week, says volunteer

KOTA KINABALU: A volunteer who was involved in a turtles-tagging programme during the recent Mabul Turtle Week has denied claims that turtles died during the event.

Herman Scholz, a Swiss national, rejected claims by non-governmental organisations Semporna Professional Divers Association (SPDA) and Green Semporna (GS) that untrained volunteers might cause some turtles to die as they were ‘shot up’ to the surface using lift bags for the tagging process.

The organisations had attached pictures and video of turtles which allegedly died during the event.

Scholz, who is a research assistant, said there is a core team which handles the turtles.

“We are all trained to handle the turtles. There is a core group which always joins this programme.

“Paying volunteers are allowed to join, watch and hold our equipment. They will eventually be allowed to write the numbers on the turtles but they are not allowed to handle them any further,” said Scholz, who was been participating in the programme since 2013.

Marine Research Foundation executive director Dr Nicolas J Pilcher, who has 30 years experience in handling turtles, had previously said that the technique of shooting up the turtles to the surface would cause decompression sickness, otherwise known as “the bends”.

Scholz, however, believed that turtles do not get “the bends” as their internal structure is different from humans.

“He (Dr Nicolos) prefers catching turtles with the ‘rodeo method,’ whereby turtles are chased by boat into shallow waters till they have to slow down from exhaustion. Someone would then jump from the boat onto the turtle (hence ‘rodeo’), and capture it.

“The turtle is then taken aboard and normally we turn them onto their backs so they don’t move around the boat,” he said, adding the turtles were then photographed, measured and tagged.

Scholz said that after the marking, the volunteers need to brush the carapace with a wire brush.

“Trust me, they don’t even feel that (being scrubbed with a wire brush),” he said, adding that the semi-permanent mark would prevent other divers from catching the same turtle in the three-and-a-half-day programme.

The New Straits Times had earlier reported on concerns over a research team that they believe could have caused decompression sickness to turtles by “shooting them up to the surface using a lift bag”.

SPDA and GS said they hoped that the authorities would look into the tagging programme involving tourists which was held annually during the Mabul Turtle Week here. They had claimed that after each programme, the number of turtles would “drop drastically” for a few weeks.

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