Biologist and veterinarian Dr. Claire Petros is on a mission to save the Maldives’ sea turtles. She explains why we need hospitals, not hatcheries, to help the world’s dwindling population of sea turtles.
Petros manages the Marine Turtle Rescue Center in Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu Resort in Baa Atoll. The center is part of the Olive Ridley Project (ORP), and provides veterinary care and rehabilitation to injured sea turtles rescued across the Maldives. The ORP also manages programs involved in the removal of ghost gear from the ocean, education and outreach programs, and sea-turtle monitoring. They’re also investigating reusing or repurposing ghost nets.
We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Petros recently about her career and work with sea turtles.
What inspired you to become a turtle vet?
I had always wanted to be a vet — I think my parents knew before I could walk. As my interest in animals grew, I knew that I would want to work with wildlife. At a young age I loved swimming and when I started diving, I became fascinated by the world underwater.
It was a dream to combine my passion for wildlife and the oceans, and turtles seemed to be the perfect fit. They are an animal that is increasingly in need of medical treatment and being a vet, I can provide it. So, I’ve been able to combine my love of the oceans with my medical training.
What makes turtles so special to you?
If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to swim with turtles, and each time feels so special, it is hard not to feel a sense of both calm and excitement. If you dive, free-dive or snorkel you just want to spend as much time with them as you can. When they’re swimming, they’re gracefully flying underwater. But if you see them eating, they’re clumsily either biting at chunks of coral or grazing in the seagrass. They’re beautiful to watch in their natural habitat.
They also make brilliant patients, if not a little difficult at times. They each have their own personality and it’s hard not to have favorites. It’s impossible not to enjoy working with sea turtles, they truly are dinosaurs and are really impressive to see close up. It’s definitely a privilege to be involved with treating them.
Why is a turtle hospital better than a hatchery in the quest to save sea turtles from extinction?
The (ORP) rescue center was established to treat turtles entangled in fishing nets. In the course of operations, we have treated four species of turtles: greens, hawksbill, loggerhead and olive ridleys for various reasons. These include fishing-hook injuries, poaching attempts, plastic debris injuries, and entanglements — all caused by humans. It is important to note that the majority of turtles are adult or sub-adult, and we rarely treat hatchlings.
The adult population is extremely important to the overall health and growth of sea turtle populations. Female turtles can lay between 80 and 120 eggs in each clutch and can have up to six clutches in one season. The importance of preserving the adult individuals therefore is paramount to the survival of the species. It’s widely accepted that only one in 1,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood. Therefore, you’d have to protect thousands of hatchlings to have a meaningful impact on the population numbers.
If we can treat and save an adult turtle at the rescue center, which we can then return to the sea to reproduce, it will have a better and more-beneficial impact on the population.
What has been your most memorable moment in your work?
We had a turtle that required a flipper amputation due to severe injury caused by entanglement in a ghost net. Despite the severity of losing a flipper, it is a fairly routine operation for us here and normally the turtles recover very easily.
This wasn’t the case for Chouchou, a juvenile olive ridley turtle. A few hours after surgery Chou stopped breathing and became quite lifeless. The other onsite vet, also named Claire, and I started breathing for her. We had to intubate her and every 10 to 15 minutes administer a few breaths.
She worsened and soon lost all signs of life. We heard her heart rate with the help of a machine called a Doppler. Her heartbeat started to become abnormal and, at this point, we were very worried that we were losing her, so we administered adrenaline and continued to breathe for her. Throughout the night we took shifts to breathe for her and monitor her progress.
At about 2 am she started moving her head and her back flippers. A few hours later she was moving her front flipper, and by 11 am she as breathing for herself. By the next evening she was swimming in the tank and eating. Incredibly we were able to release her within the month as her wound healed really well and she was swimming brilliantly having lost one of her front flippers.
Losing any turtle is heartbreaking and being a rescue center, it is sadly a common occurrence. We can only do so much to save turtles that have been affected so badly by net injuries, and often when we find them, they are in a very bad condition. We get very emotionally attached to each turtle at the center as we spend a lot of time treating them and getting to know their personalities.
Recently we lost a long-term patient, Morgan. Morgan was a lovely turtle and had already lost two flippers when found her, both on the same side, from being entangled in a ghost net. She had a horrible shell infection which took months to treat and eventually clear up. We were unable to release her, as she would have found it hard to swim and find food and may have struggled to lead a normal life in the wild. We were in contact with an aquarium in the U.K. that wanted to give her a new home with access to a large tank. There, she could become an ambassador for turtles entangled in ghost nets.
Sadly, she passed away after spending over a year in the center, most likely due to the impact that her ordeal had on her body. It was extremely hard losing a turtle that we had all spent a long time with and knew so well.
What is the main message you would like to convey to the world?
The rescue center is doing a fantastic job treating and releasing turtles that are found entangled in ghost nets. However, for endangered turtle populations to recover and thrive, much more needs to be done to avoid turtle and marine-debris or ghost-gear interactions from taking place at all.
Our center is the last defense against these manmade threats to turtles. But it is ultimately their last hope rather than a much-needed push to bring an end to such negative interactions.
As vets, it’s our duty to care for the individual animal, to provide medical treatment and manage rehabilitation. It’s our responsibility as a society, however, to raise awareness, influence policy, change behavior and indeed, make every effort possible to significantly reduce the amount of harmful plastic and ghost-fishing gear entering our oceans and interacting with vulnerable marine wildlife.