Maldives Part 1: Olive Ridley project sea turtle expedition
In week one of my Maldives trip I have been privileged to be aboard the Olive Ridley Project (ORP)’s Sea Turtle Expedition boat. I’ve joined scientists and vets, conducting important research into sea turtle populations, educating school children, and rescuing entangled sea turtles found out to sea. What a week it has been.
Sea turtles are so prone to entanglement in ‘ghost gear’ - lost and discarded fishing nets and equipment. I hadn’t realised that this is because they are attracted to the shelter and food that is on offer with the nets floating on the surface, and that they’ll often crawl on top of the nets to bask in the sun to warm up, subsequently becoming entangled, and often severely injured as a result.
The Olive Ridley Project (ORP) is a UK charity working in the Indian Ocean to research, educate and positively impact this crisis. The name is after the Olive Ridley turtle - an ocean-going species, that is by far the most commonly encountered entangled species of turtle. The ORP opened a rescue centre on Coco Palm Island in the Maldives in 2017 as a place to treat and rehabilitate injured turtles, with dedicated veterinary care. Over 650 turtles have been recorded entangled by The Olive Ridley Project since 2013, and 68 have been received at the veterinary clinic for treatment since its opening.
One of the most common injuries these turtles face is flipper entanglement, which can cause such severe and deep wounds that amputation is often necessary. Turtles can swim with only three flippers! But due to buoyancy issues after these traumatic events, their rehabilitation can be prolonged, and so having the best care during this time has proved invaluable in enabling release back into the wild.
During our week on the Sea Turtle Expedition boat, we came across many happy Hawksbill turtles on the reefs, and were even lucky enough to swim with Manta Rays! However we also came across what we had dreaded, and yet the reason for us being there in the first place. An entangled Olive Ridley turtle.
I was having a lovely nap on the deck during a crossing between atolls, sleepy after two fantastic early morning snorkels. I was awoken to shouts of “TURTLE! STOP THE BOAT!”
There aren’t many reasons you’ll see a turtle floating in open ocean. We immediately feared the worst.
She was an adult Olive Ridley, with a cement bag wrapped tightly around her front left flipper. She couldn’t dive as a result, and we brought her on board for Claire Petros, lead veterinarian of the Olive Ridley Project, to assess the situation.
The bag had wrapped around so tightly that she had a deep laceration to her flipper which had restricted fluid return to the body, causing the flipper to swell and her use of it to be massively impaired. However, the wound was healed, and she had good body mass, so Claire deemed her in suitable health to attempt release.
We all held our breath while we lowered her into the water, hoping she was able to dive, and thus able to fend for herself. With one powerful kick of her flippers, she was underwater and away, and we could all breathe a big sigh of relief!
This story had a happy ending, and thanks to the ORP, so is the case for so many entangled turtles around the Maldives. Incredible work is being done in both rescue and rehab of injured turtles, and education around tackling the issue of plastic pollution and ghost gear before turtles can become the victims of it. However, my week aboard the boat was also eye opening, and despite my normal determined positivity around the subject, it was hard to maintain hope.
After days on end of seeing plastic floating in the sea amongst incredible wildlife, bottles and cups floating in harbours and ghost gear being found on every snorkel survey we did, I wondered what I, we, could actually do about this issue.
Fishing gear is a tough one to tackle, and I am in no position to impose my views onto people whose only income is fishing, and who aren't in the privileged position to make choices based solely on environmental best practice. For a few days I actually got quite down on how hopeless I felt.
And then I realised that there is something I, and we, can do. Something very powerful, and very simple.
We might not be able to force opinion upon people, but we can let people know what matters to US, and our most powerful tool - voting with our wallet.
Tourism in The Maldives is driving consumption on an enormous scale. There are already a lot of initiatives and projects focussing on reducing plastic waste, and a lot of the resorts are now starting to strive towards eco status. Why? Because it is becoming more and more important to their customers! This is a consumer driven market, and we have the potential to influence how providers operate. Ask your holiday providers what they are doing to limit their impact on the environment, how they source their energy, what their position is on plastic usage, and challenge single use plastic that is used, such as straws in drinks. This sends a very clear message that their customers care about these issues, and that they need to step up and take responsibility for them.
In terms of influencing in-country, the Olive Ridley Project’s outreach work with schools and local communities is influencing opinions and behaviours in a way that is sustainable and and respectful, and this is work that I'm proud to support.
The next part of my stay here is embarking upon a 100km SUP tour of Baa Atoll with Dr Claire Petros and two wonderful Maldivian women - Dhafy Hassan Ibrahim and Saazu Saeed, exploring the positive actions that are being taken to tackle climate change, plastic pollution and ghost gear, and running beach cleans and presentations with local schools.
Thanks so much to the Olive Ridley Project, Coco Collection, Sea Life Trust, World Animal Protection, Klean Kanteen, Starboard SUP, Ocean Ambassadors, Palm Equipment, Dryrobe, 10 International, Fourth Element, Patagonia, Waterhaul, Odyssey Innovation.