Sea turtles are ancient marine reptiles that survived through the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs. Today there are 7 living species of sea turtles, which can be found throughout the world’s oceans (except polar regions). Although they evolved from land turtles and breath air, they only come to land to lay eggs.
Here on ‘Turtle Island’, so named due to the shape of the island, they are one of our most revered marine animals, respected by divers and non-divers alike. There are three species of sea turtles that visit the island, the Green, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley. Sea turtles are valuable animals; ecologically, economically, culturally, and in education. Although sea turtles are quite regularly seen while snorkeling or diving, populations of sea turtles are in decline world wide. Unfortunately, today most of the world’s sea turtles species are listed as endangered or threatened with extinction.
The main threats to sea turtles are marine debris (plastic bags, cigarette butts, etc), fishing (as by catch or stranded in nets), beach development, black market trading, and climate change. Protection of turtles has been undertaken in many areas for decades, but unfortunately enforcement is nearly impossible. Furthermore marine debris and climate change are global problems, which are difficult if not impossible to solve.
Since the year 2000, the Thai Navy has been working to protect, rehabilitate, head-start, and release sea turtles at the The Royal Thai Navy’s Sea Turtle Conservation Center in Sattahip. For the last decade, they have also been working with the local community of Koh Tao to release turtles and create reporting networks for any problems observed. For the past 5 years the Save Koh Tao Community Group has been responsible for the releases (50-150 turtles/year), and have been successful in also protecting eggs and hatchlings.
The dive school has been a part of these local efforts since the beginning, and have generally been the ones in charge of caring and keeping the turtles for several days before their release with the local community and the annual Save Koh Tao Festival.
In 2012, the turtles which arrived for release at the annual festival where found to be unfit, weak, and covered in infections. It was decided that instead of releasing them, 21 of the 50 turtles should be kept here and rehabilitated before release.
After working with one of the top veterinary doctors in Thailand, and the local Noistar Koh Tao Animal Clinic, it was decided that these turtles should be head-started. This means that they keep the turtles for about 1 year in simulated natural conditions to allow them to grow larger before being released, a process called head-starting.
The goal of the head-starting program is to reduce the mortality of juvenile turtles while still provide all of the necessary factors for their proper development. In the wild, only about 1 in every 1,000 turtle hatchlings would survive to become an adult, so this way they hope to increase the available reproductive populations and hopefully assist the turtles in dealing with all of the global and local threats until they can be solved more permanently. All of the sea turtles released from the program are also implanted with an RFID chip, to hopefully add to the available scientific information for local sea turtle populations (see the list of RFID Serial numbers).
Photo credit to New Heaven Dive School