The saga of the seaweed and a hawksbill turtle

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By Martha Watkins Gilkes  

This is a feel good story of a marine mammal rescue. They say it takes a village – or in this case it took a number of volunteers who care about marine life.  

Antigua, as well as most of the Caribbean, has suffered a serious influx of the dreadful sargassum seaweed which is sadly killing much marine life – dolphins, turtles, fish and many other sea creatures.  

A critically endangered juvenile hawksbill turtle was caught in the seaweed on an east coast Antigua beach on March 5. She was not able to lift her head or even move a fin.

Luckily for her a good Samaritan came across her in the seaweed and called me to help. I called the Environmental Awareness Group’s (EAG) coordinator of the Antigua Marine Conservation Programme, Alex Fireman, and along with Sherrill Charles, Science Communications Officer, they came out to implement the rescue.

‘Lucky Lady’ – as we named her – was taken to a temporary kiddie swimming pool to attempt rehabilitation. 

Sea turtles are protected in Antigua and a special permit is needed to handle them. However, resources are very limited, so the team reached out to other overseas experts including the Sea Turtle Hospital in Florida for additional help. There is an amazing programme called Turtles Fly Too that could have possibly done an airlift.

Lucky Lady was taken to local vet, Dr Fiona Francis, for an IV drip and a blood sample. For four days she was cared for by the team with complicated plans being made for an overseas airlift which included endless forms and getting CITES (a multilateral treaty) permission on both ends.    

Miraculously on day five the turtle started swimming around the small pool and moving her fins and raising her head. The water level was raised in the small pool showing she could swim and lift her head out of the water to breathe. After consulting with the USA marine mammal vets, the team made the decision to release her near to the beach she got stranded on.  

Plans were put in place to transport her on the 16-mile journey to the beach and late afternoon on the fifth day of her ordeal she was placed on the sand near the surf. After a moment of hesitation, she climbed towards the open sea and disappeared below the water.     

It is hoped Lucky Lady will not re-strand and will continue her maturity from her estimated five years of age until she reaches egg-laying years. She is now a tagged turtle so if she is found again an identification can be made.  

Note that sea turtles are endangered and hawksbills are critically endangered so saving even one is of utmost importance. 

If you come across a stranded sea turtle, please call the EAG sea turtle hotline on 736-8878 for help.

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