Sea turtles are ancient marine reptiles that evolved around 80-110 million years ago, and 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 the evolved from land turtles and breath air, they only come to land to lay eggs.
Sea Turtles on Koh Tao
Here on ‘Turtle Island’ they are one of our most revered marine animals, respected by divers and non-divers alike. We have three species of sea turtles which visit our island, the Green, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley. Sea turtles are valuable animals; ecologically, economically, culturally, and in education. Although we encounter sea turtles quite regularly here 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.
What’s being done to help Sea Turtles?
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. We have more information about how these sea turtle programs work in our articles section.
The New Heaven 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 we 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.
Why A Sea Turtle Head-Starting Program?
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 we 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. We employ a wide range of techniques to ensure the health and proper development of the turtles under our care, as outlined in the methods section of our 2014 Sea Turtle Rehabilitation and Head-starting update report. All of the sea turtles released from our 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).
How can I get involved in this program?
The sea turtle nursery is located in the garden area of the New Heaven Dive School in Chalok Ban Kao. Visitors are welcome to visit the center anytime between 8 am and 7 pm. Visitors are permitted to take photos, but are not permitted to handle or touch the turtles. However, around 4-5 pm, visitors may come and observe and sometimes assistance in the feeding of the turtles. There is no charge to see the turtles, however donations used for purchasing food are welcomed.
For those who want to get more involved and assist regularly with the turtle program we offer several options through our marine conservation courses. In our marine conservation program, students learn about sea turtle ecology, anatomy, identification, and care. We also offer a certification card program for those who want to involve in our Sea Turtle Ecology and Head-Starting Course. Each day they assist us to feed and take data on the progress of our turtles as we care for them over the next year. Furthermore, students are involved in other reef research, clean-ups, and activities to address the threats to sea turtles locally and globally.
When should I come?
Generally we receive new turtles into our program around the middle of June, and begin releasing the first ones in October. Depending on the starting size of the sea turtles, most will be released by the following January or February.