Bayworld team saves topsy-turvy turtle

How do you save a turtle that can’t swim? You give it a lifebelt, of course.

With a combination of caring, experience and innovation, a patch of wetsuit and a stick of close-cell foam, Bayworld’s aquarium team has saved an endangered green turtle from a watery grave.

Bentley, as she is called, stranded on Woody Cape beach in September. Luckily, Boknes cyclist St Elmo Wilken came across her and carried her home.

The turtle was then ferried to Cannon Rocks stranding network member Verona Veltman, who drove her through to Bayworld.

Aquarium curator Dylan Bailey said yesterday it had quickly become evident that the animal was suffering from a gas bubble under its shell.

“It’s quite a common situation with stranded turtles and usually tips them sideways. But this one was obviously at the back of the shell so the animal was being tipped head down and struggling to come up for air.”

They develop bubbles most commonly as a result of “cold shocks” from upwelling, where icy water wells to the surface in a process common to Algoa Bay.

Bentley the green turtle.
Picture: Eugene Coetzee

The temperature could drop by 10° in a matter of hours and green turtles, which had come down from the warm waters of Madagascar and Seychelles, could not tolerate the sudden thermal dip, Bailey said.

“It slows their metabolism down and they often develop this bubble problem from indigestion and stress.”

Side-tipped turtles can still breathe but this one was struggling and this was the most immediate problem. Having researched the problem, the team constructed a “Bentley belt” by wrapping a piece of foam in wetsuit material and fastening it around the tur tle’s middle with cable ties.

It worked like a bomb. Housed in a shallow tank of warm water and grazing on algae, Bentley soon righted herself as her bubble dissipated.

But when they took the belt off – she sank like a stone, apparently because her internal organs had shifted in a kind of hernia.

So Bentley got her lifejacket back again and is now paddling peacefully about, waiting for her next veterinary check-up.

It was estimated she would have regained her buoyancy within a month and would then be eligible for discharge, Bailey said.

Just five years old and weighing 9.6kg, she will grow to 60 years and 120kg if she survives and will likely return to the tropics.

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