From my archives in April 2007
In 1997 ‘Watamu Turtle Watch’ was launched. It still operates under Local Ocean Conservation today.
A whole load of journalists descend on this one little turtle happily snoozing under his shaded spot in the pool. All we can see of this star-to-be-soon turtle are his flippers sticking out from the slab of stone that he’s resting under.
This is the first time for most of us to see the hawksbill, a critically endangered animal. I’ve spotted a turtle surface for air near Mkwiro village off Wasini island and several at Seaworld in Orlando USA. But nothing compares to seeing a creature of the wild in the wild.
Anyway, our hawksbill hero is at the Watamu Turtle Watch turtle hospital near Mida Creek in Watamu. The turtle hospital is the only one of its kind on the east coast of Africa and l would imagine, on much of the continent too.
The turtle slips out from his rest zone and since l simply love turtles, l’m just so awed. The juvenile turtle swims around unfazed by the media shooting it from every angle.
Steve Trott, the marine zoologist and manager of the turtle hospital slips into the pool and for our benefit picks up Kisumini. Our little hero isn’t very amused and like any kid flaying his or her arms and legs, the turtle does so with his flippers. Since turtles are reptiles, they have to surface for air, so we’re not being overtly insensitive. It’s just a quick look at him that we want – like his solid bill like that of a hawksbill bird. A few minutes later, and Kisumini is placed back in his private pool.
That’s when Steve points out at his swimming style. The turtle has a stronger side and seems to swim more in circles because of this discrepancy in his muscle tone. The turtle has scoliosis. It’s the first time that any of the turtle experts have seen such a case and they are in a bit of a dilemma – how do you treat a turtle with scoliosis, a condition that causes the spine to curve, which is more often reported in humans? And as far as ethics go, the turtle hospital’s mandate is to treat the turtles and release them back to the seas they swim in.
Kisumini, his name derived from Kiswahili for the old Kenyan 50 cent coin, was really tiny when brought in from the bay north of Malindi called Che Shale by Justin Aniere who spotted the turtle swimming in circles.
Turtles are one of the last creatures from the old world. They have outlived the dinosaur but like many creatures of the wild, they seem to have a spot of trouble with us.
“80 percent of the world’s turtles have disappeared in the last century directly linked to human activity,” Steve tells.
You can hear the audible gasp from the journalists given the startling figure.
“Turtles like the same things like we do – warm tropical waters and nice sandy beaches with plenty of sun to warm the sand for the mothers coming in to lay their eggs. Most of these beaches have hotels built on them.”
That’s just one half of the story. The other is when the turtles are in water, the trawlers with their nets clean sweep the ocean beds, taking in a whole load of by products like turtles. Turtles caught in nets easily drown. Very few nets under the international law have Turtles Emitting Devises fitted to allow for the turtles to swim out.
Then there’s the problem of reefs where turtles feed and the shallow tidal zone where mangroves thrive and act as nurseries for turtles juveniles who are prone to siltation thanks to the forests and riverbanks upcountry being cut down. The soil simply slips into the sea suffocating the reefs and bringing in pollutants.
“We need good management,” continues Steve.
One of the unique programmes started in Watamu is working with the local fisherman.
“It was quite by accident that a fisherman came in with a turtle in his net. He was happy for us to have the turtle as long as he was compensated for his net. Since then, we’ve had fishermen come in with live turtles – that’s a condition for them to be compensated.”
In the days of old, the turtle would simply have been killed for its meat.
We’re all linked in the cycle of life. Every single action of ours translates into something. The prawns that we deliciously eat in the restaurants – do we ask ourselves if they are ethically caught or are they from the trawlers sweeping the ocean floor clean destroying the ecosystems that we are dependent on? Or the indigenous forests we clear fell in the name of space for humanity?
We enjoy our last moments with Kisumini – perhaps he will be the turtle mascot for future generations – l hope so.
When in Watamu or even Malindi, do visit Watamu Turtle Watch. It’s free and open to all save for Sunday. Call before you go – there may be no patient in or you may be so lucky to make it in time to see turtle hatchlings stagger too the sea fresh out of their shells.
Contact: +254 703 705 342
By 2007 Watamu Turtle Watch had released 2500 turtles since 1998.
Of the world’s seven species of turtles, we have five swimming in the Kenyan waters – Hawksbill, Green, Olive Ridley, Leatherback and Loggerhead. The first three also nest on Kenyan beaches.
The Watamu Turtle Watch runs on funds available – so spare a cent when you visit. There’s also a visitors center at the Malindi shopping center to learn more about the seaworld.
Because we don’t want to see this: