25 August 2010

Sea turtle release at Big Sisters: will they make it?

Yesterday I attended the release of captive bred hawksbill turtles at Big Sisters Island organised by Underwater World Singapore.
It was exciting to witness the release of these gentle creatures.

Before the release, there was a lively and interesting seminar about sea turtles and their fate. The Multidisciplinary Forum "Turtles Towards Extinction: How late are we? Is it too late?" was chaired by Professor Peter Ng, Director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research who highlighted how little we know about sea turtles. That is why this effort to track sea turtles by satellite will help us better understand and protect sea turtles.
The release involved thirteen hawskbill sea turtles that were born at the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium in Japan. They were brought all the way to Singapore because their parents originally came from the Underwater World Singapore in 1997 and 2002. Eight of the turtles to be released were outfitted with satellite transmitters, believed to be the first captive bred turtles to be tagged.

During the seminar, Dr Tomomi Saito of the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium shared more about the efforts at captive breeding at his facility. Their sea turtles there have an artificial beach where nesting takes place. There is a live webcam of what is going on!
When the eggs are dug up for artificial incubation, it's an opportunity to educate the public about sea turtles.
Kids can get a close look at sea turtles incubating and hatching. The aquarium is also involved in relocating eggs to natural shores and releasing hatchlings into the sea.
Turtle expert George Balazs from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and long-time US turtle educator Marc Rice then shared more about how the sea turtles were tagged. Here's a photo of the sea turtles from Japan before they were tagged.
The US experts share how the satellite transmitters are attached to the sea turtles. They share that recently, smaller transmitters are available thus allowing them to tag younger sea turtles.
The transmitter can only send a signal via its antenna to a satellite hundreds of kilometers in the sky when the turtle snatches a breath of air at the water surface. Thus special effort is made to protect the transmitter antenna from breaking off. The researchers expect the transmitter to work for six months if all goes well. Eventually, the transmitter will fall off as the turtle's scutes are naturally shed. It may drop off earlier if the sea turtle rubs its back against a reef.
Here's the team with a sea turtle outfitted with the satellite transmitter.
A closer look at the transmitter attached to one of the sea turtles from Japan. All the released sea turtles also had metal tags attached to the left front flipper (at the 'elbow'). The sea turtles were transported to Big Sister Island in boxes.
Attending the seminar today were Scouts who had volunteered for turtle and marine conservation work in Trengganu in Project Orion I (2009) and Project Orion II (2010). In the picture frames are thank you notes penned by the locals at the project site.
In addition to the eight turtles from Japan, Underwater World Singapore also released some sea turtles from their aquarium. These include five small turtles (30cm, about one-and-a-half years old), and five huge adult turtles - two males and three females who have been captive for 16 years. These lucky five were picked from "the 19 such turtles there for release due to their good health and chances of survival."

That sure is a lot of sea turtles to transport for release! So the Scouts lend helping hands to carry the sea turtles towards their final freedom.
At the ferry terminal we are joined by CHIJ Kellock girls who are fascinated by the sea turtles as they are carried one by one in their boxes to the ferry.
The sea turtles in boxes are ready for transfer into the big ferry.
After lots of preparation and speeches, it was time to release the turtles! CHIJ Kellock girls have a closer look at the sea turtles with Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman, Parliamentary Secretary for National Development before their release.
Everyone crowds around for a last look at the sea turtles before they splash away to freedom.
The huge turtles are a little disoriented upon their release and there's a bit of a turtle jam before they all head out into the water. Watching them hit the water, I realise sea turtles can swim very fast!
Will these awesome creatures survive in the wild?

As we head out for Big Sisters Island with the turtles, many of the threats facing them are obvious. There's massive works next to Sentosa for a huge pedestrian boardwalk. A sea turtle has been sighted at Marina at Keppel Bay which is just off Sentosa.
Just before boarding the ferry, a look at the reclamation and dredging going on for the massive Pasir Panjang Container Terminal reclamation project.
Behind the dredgers at Pasir Panjang, flaring on Pulau Bukom is very obvious. The huge flame emits black smoke and suggests incomplete combustion, like an oil spill from the sky?
The towering flame is almost as tall as the chimney! Sea turtles are regularly sighted at reefs near Pulau Bukom such as Pulau Semakau, Pulau Hantu and Cyrene Reef. Many of our Southern Islands are used for industrial purposes, and the waters are full of ships, parked or moving about.
Singapore is one of the world's busiest ports and many large ships pass by our wild islands, including Big Sisters. But sea turtles are found even on our reclaimed shores. Hatchlings have been sighted at East Coast Park!
Big Sisters Island lies just off the main business district on the mainland. Nevertheless, Big Sisters has among our best reefs! In fact, during our trip to this island about a month ago, we came across a wild hawksbill turtle having a nap in the lagoon! Another threat to sea turtles is coral bleaching which has affected reefs worldwide, including those in Singapore and at Big Sisters Island.
Other threats to sea turtles on our shores include abandoned driftnets that drown these air-breathers, and marine litter which the sea turtles mistake for their food. In Malaysia recently, the plight of sea turtles choking on bottle caps and other plastic rubbish was highlighted. A few days ago, a sea turtle died after it was severly injured by a boat in Tioman.

As we head home, Prof Leo Tan chats with the young ones about our shores. As always, he inspires with his delightful stories.
Let's hope the sea turtles will live and prosper in the wild. And that there will be new generations of Singaporeans who care about our shores and the wildlife that live here.

Full media reports on the turtle release at Big Sisters Island on wildsingapore news. Video clip of Channel 8 story of the release on the Project Orion II blog.

Some sea turtle FAQs

What should I do if I see baby sea turtles on the beach?
Call the Police or NParks (Helpline number: 1800 4717300, or any other emergency number that you can see posted on signage in the park). They will then activate the Standard Operating Procedure to rescue them.

What should I do if I see sea turtles in our waters?
Send your valuable sighting to the online sighting report. In doubt, just send! This data will be shared with other vertebrate researchers and managers in Singapore. Highlights may be featured on Habitatnews from time to time (if the records are not confidential), e.g. http://tinyurl.com/habitatnews-mammal

More links
About sea turtles in Singapore: facts and sightings and links to more posts.
Global and local reports about sea turtles on wildsingapore news.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my god! So envious of all who got the opportunity to help out and witness the release of these beautiful animals! Turtles are my favourite animals, I wish I could be part of the team to help out!

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