Turtles return home

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Two loggerhead turtles, which were washed up on the south-west UK coast this winter, have been flown to Gran Canaria and released back into the sea.

Twenty-three loggerheads have been stranded on UK and Irish coasts this year, an unprecedented number. “Dink” and “James” were the only survivors.

Having tenderly nursed the turtles back to health, Blue Reef Aquarium curator Matt Slater said he was “delighted”.

Loggerheads (<Caretta caretta<) are categorised as endangered.

“Hopefully, we won’t be seeing you again. Have many, many years of swimming in the ocean,” Mr Slater called out to Dink and James as they disappeared into the clear water.

After six months of rehabilitation at Blue Reef Aquarium, Newquay, the two loggerheads have been returned to the sea off a beach in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.

“It was absolutely beautiful. Let’s hope no more turtles get stranded, but if they do we know we can look after them,” Mr Slater said.

Both turtles have been microchipped. If they are ever spotted again, by fishermen or on the beach, a tag in their flipper can be used for identification. Otherwise, their adventures in the vast Atlantic Ocean will be unknown.

“I hope they will be OK,” Mr Slater mused. “In their lifetime, things will change a lot. The future for turtles in general is not great.”

<Future dangers<

After arriving in Gran Canaria, Dink and James were checked over and given the all-clear at the Wildlife Recovery Centre of Tafira. Some 150 injured turtles from around the Canary Islands are taken here each year.

“Seventy-five percent of the sea turtles that we receive have been hurt because of man’s activities,” said Pascual Calabuig, the centre’s director.

He added: “We see turtles damaged by hooks, nets, pollution, oil and plastic bags. Turtles damaged by boats are the worst to recover. We try to patch up their shells with fibreglass, but survival rates are low.

“Through diagnosis, treatment, operations, protein-rich food, fluid and antibiotics, we help save 80% of the turtles that we receive,” said Mr Calabuig.

Along with industrial fisheries, habitat loss and climate change are the main threats facing turtles.

It was Mr Calabuig’s excellent reputation and his centre’s track record that helped Blue Reef decide to choose Gran Canaria as the release site.

“We could also get cheap flights and the Canary Islands are the nearest land point to the loggerheads’ migration route around the Atlantic,” explained Mr Slater.

<Drifting on the current<

Loggerheads breed on the beaches of the Mediterranean, West Africa, Brazil and along the south-east coasts of the US. Florida has the largest loggerhead population.

“Within 24 hours hatchlings swim into the open water of the Atlantic Ocean,” explained Peter Richardson, biodiversity programme manager at the Marine Conservation Society.

Loggerheads travel around the large ocean currents in a wide loop. From nesting beaches in Florida, they follow the Gulf Stream across the Atlantic to Madeira, and then head south to the Canary Islands and Cape Verde Isles, before heading back to the south-east coast of the US.

Mr Richardson added: “They join the North Atlantic Gyre’s circulatory system for three to five years before coming inshore. They then gradually move towards a nesting beach in the vicinity of where they were born.”

He continued: “We are not 100% sure how turtles navigate this route. They have some geo-magnetic understanding, for broad-scale navigation, and can use chemical cues coming off of islands, such as windblown dust, as a homing device.”

<Why UK strandings?<

Scientists are uncertain why loggerhead turtles have been stranding on UK and Ireland coasts in record numbers this year.

Most agree that extreme weather systems over the UK may be a cause.