Turtle rehabilitation centre shows caring for sick sea creatures is no easy feat
For many of us, the sight of a turtle floating close to the ocean’s surface might bring delight.
But to Andrew Raith it is a sign the animal might be suffering a life-threatening illness, known as floating syndrome.
« Basically they’re so sick they build up gas internally and they float and they can’t feed on the bottom of the ocean, » he said.
Mr Raith works with AusTurtle, a sea turtle research and conservation group based in Darwin.
On the Top End’s largely untouched coastline, the majority of injuries and illnesses that afflict sea turtles are naturally occurring.
Fishermen who come across floating turtles often contact AusTurtle and ask what they should do to help them.
« Prior to this facility being set up we really didn’t have a lot to offer, » Mr Raith said.
« We could take them to the vet, get some basic treatment, and then we’d pretty much have to release them quite quickly.
« Whereas ideally for sea turtles they need quite a bit of duration time in rehab. »
Now, a new rehabilitation facility at Charles Darwin University will allow wildlife carers to provide turtles the care they need.
Filled with large tanks, an elaborate course of pipes and the sound of gushing water, the facility is currently housing two patients.
« We’ve got one who was a hatchling last year, so he’s sort of half-a-dinner-plate size at the moment and he’ll be released in a couple of weeks, » Mr Raith told ABC Radio Darwin‘s Liz Trevaskis as he gave her a tour.
« We’ve also got a long-term resident who’s unsuitable to be released.
« He’s been in captivity for 17 years — not here, but elsewhere — and we took him on as a sick patient. »
The large, gentle creature is a hawksbill turtle, a species listed as vulnerable.
Other species, such as flatback turtles, are what Mr Raith describes as « data deficient » and staff are hoping to learn more about them as the facility returns them to good health.
Rehabilitating turtles, Mr Raith said, was not an exact science but that the long arcs of becoming sick and healing required extended stays.
« [Here] they’ll be hydrated and they’d get the required feed and over the time they’d naturally reduce the internal gas.
« Once they’re naturally buoyant we can release them. »
Staff have also been providing a treatment like physiotherapy, helping return full movement to the flippers of the smaller turtle.
The facility operates with the help of AusTurtle volunteers and contributions from facilities owned by the university and an animal welfare grant from the NT Government.
At capacity, it will hold about 20 sub-adult or mature turtles and some 50 hatchlings.
In June, conservation volunteers will travel to an island west of Darwin to take stock of turtle populations, including hatchlings that have made failed attempts at leaving the nests and mature turtles who are unwell.
The facility will be fully operational for any marine life they bring back.