The Green Turtles Urho, Hilja and Hertta

Those cute little turtles must have touched the heart of the young Finnish ladies as three of those green turtles were adopted and given the Finnish names Urho, Hilja and Hertta. Now these three are out there somewhere, roaming the seas around Phuket. But they are tagged with satellite tracking devices so their new “mothers” – the turtle watchers – can keep track of their whereabouts.
And two more such tagged turtles were released into the ocean in end of January this year. The purpose is to find out more what happens to all turtles that are raised in captivity once they are released in the hundreds every year, in an effort to see what can be done to their dramatic decline in Thai waters.

Turtle Watch
Two diving enthusiasts and also marine biologists from Finland, Anu Riihimäki and Maria Koivisto came up with the non-profit organization Turtle Watch after having observed the demise of the turtle population on many locations when diving in Thailand.
“I used to work here as a diving instructor, on Koh Racha. There were some breeding turtles there and hatched turtles kept in tanks. And I came back to Finland and started thinking of doing something more interesting and about what would happen to the turtles once they are released to the ocean. So that’s basically how this came to be and then we started a collaboration with the Phuket Marine Biological Center (PMBC),” explains Anu.
Their goal is to actively inform tourists about sustainable tourism, especially regarding diving and snorkelling. They also spread information about endangered species of the seas, especially sea turtles since the migration patterns of the green turtle is their pilot study.

Will they survive?
Their main concern was that the captive-raised turtles have never left their breeding tanks or even seen a live fish, so they might not necessarily do well in the deep blue. Only from PMBC 300 green turtles raised in captivity are released each year. Breeding and releasing turtles into the sea is common practice in Thailand, (started way back in 1947 when commercial fishing of turtles was banned) also because of Buddhist belief that releasing them brings good luck.
Towards the end of the twentieth century the turtles not only were facing exploitation of their shells, eggs and meat but new fishing methods, ocean pollution (particularly plastic bags) and changes in the traditional nesting beaches.
“There’s a lot of information about migrating adult turtles but very little info exist about the young turtles and actually their first couple of years are called the lost years, because they tend to passively migrate with the ocean currents. No one knows where they go,” says Maria.
No scientific evidence of how this captive breeding affects turtles exist up to date so acquiring more information on how juvenile turtles migrate and what kind of habitats they prefer enables better protection.

Where do they go?
The ongoing survey by Turtle Watch follows the lives of green turtles upon release to see how they survive, how they migrate and if they behave in the same way as “natural” turtles. Small, matchbox-sized satellite tags are attached to the turtles’ upper shells.  
“Our intention is to collect a big set of data so we have reliable results, so first of all we want to expand the data that we get from these captive breed turtles to see how they behave and where they go. After that it would be very interesting to compare them with turtles that are just naturally born, and turtles of the same age.”
Eventually the study will show wether or not captive breeding is a good conservational tool for sea turtles.
“At least we’ve got valuable, new information at this stage: that they survive after the release into the sea.”
And yet there is high risk of mortality throughout their whole lifespan. The whole idea of breeding them is to release them when they have reached an age of one year, because by then few predators eat them at all.
The human is the biggest threat to them: fish nets, the vanishing of suitable under water habitats etc.
“Another reason for decline of turtles is the disappearing of suitable nesting beaches. When tourists take over where turtles would usually hatch,” Maria points out.

Big ambitions
While they are still spending most of the year back in Finland (doing research work and Maria finishing her PhD) they have clear ambitions for their organisation as they find it much more challenging and interesting to work internationally.
“You can do more for the nature here, with lots of endangered animals. And there are still so many things that you could do better and actually make a difference if you just figured out the way and got people working in that direction,” says Anu.
“We are trying to start a project here about sustainable fishing, where we could promote turtle and dolphin-friendly fishing gear. And also bring together hotels and restaurants willing to promote sustainable fish products from fishermen using such gear,” says Maria.
“We would promote the fish they catch, that does not hurt the turtles and sell to the hotels and work as a link between the fishermen and the hotels so they could get more money out of it,” says Anu.
And once they have set up Turtle Watch as a Thai organization they want to raise the ecological awareness among visitors, working via travel agents and operators and educate them with info that can be passed on to tourists. They will provide materials about endangered sea turtles and other marine species and promote sustainable tourism in Phuket.
“We hope to find good places where to take tourists and how to bring them there and which local travel agencies to cooperate with that take environmental concern.”

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About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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