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The National Marine Aquarium, the largest display for sea life in the United Kingdom, has officially welcomed Heidi, an olive ridley turtle rescued in 2018 from the Maldives.
Heidi had embarked on a 26-hour journey to the aquarium in Plymouth, England, at the start of November and has spent his time since getting acclimated in isolation from other animals. A gate separating Heidi from his new home, the Great Barrier Reef exhibit, was lifted on Tuesday, and he became acquainted with his tank mates for the first time.
“He has not seen other large marine life for over 4 years so it will take him a little time to get used to the stingrays and groupers already in the tank,” said Marcus Williams, curator at the aquarium and the Ocean Conservation Trust, in an emailed statement.
“He has enjoyed swimming at the surface and playing in the water flow but it may take him a little time before he voluntarily dives down to explore the rest of the tank.”
After his initial rescue in 2018 from an entangled ghost net, or lost or abandoned fishing gear, in the South Malé Atoll, Heidi spent four years at the Olive Ridley Project, the first veterinarian-led turtle rescue center in the Maldives, where he underwent surgery and rehabilitation.
Injuries Heidi sustained from the net were so severe that his front left flipper was amputated. He also no longer has movement in his front right flipper, so the experts at the rescue center consider him essentially a double amputee.
Heidi is still able to move around using only his back legs. But this reduced mobility would prevent the 64-pound (29-kilogram) sea turtle from hunting and foraging for enough food and protecting himself from predators in the ocean. Unable to survive on his own, Heidi is ineligible to be released back in the wild.
Heidi’s condition doesn’t prevent him from making new friends, though — something his doctors hope he’ll continue to do in his new home.
“You’d come in the morning, and he would rise himself up with his little back flippers and come say good morning to you every single day,” said Dr. Claire Petros, lead veterinarian at the Olive Ridley Project, of Heidi’s time in rehab.
“We couldn’t do him the service of releasing him as he was, so I’m hoping that the public will see just how lovely he is and realize that turtles have incredible personalities, too.”
Ocean debris puts marine animals at risk
While Heidi was able to find his forever home, ghost nets and other ocean debris remain a threat to turtles and countless other marine species across the globe.
A 2018 study of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a 1.6 million-square-kilometer (617,763-square-mile) collection of trash more than double the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean — found more than half of the area’s total plastic mass was from nets, ropes and lines.
Every year, more than 136,000 turtles, dolphins, whales and seals get tangled in abandoned nets or gear, according to World Animal Protection. Some of this gear takes 600 years to break down, causing “enormous suffering” to the animals caught in it.
“As humans, we’ve hurt this wild animaI. The ghost nets have caused these injuries to (Heidi), and I think he can tell people the story of what’s happening to the other turtles out there,” Petros said.
Indeed, Heidi will serve as an ambassador for ghost net injuries at the National Marine Aquarium.
Turtle prosthetics ‘really not a thing’
Marine turtles receiving a single amputation are commonly released back into the wild since they are still able to swim successfully with three flippers. Sea turtles are naturally very strong, and single amputees can benefit from the support of the water beneath them in their marine environment, so a prosthetic wouldn’t be necessary.
Prosthetics are not an option for Heidi or other double-amputee turtles, either.
A turtle has feeling in its shell the same way a human has feeling beneath fingernails, Petros said, thanks to nerve endings protected by the keratin that makes up the shell’s top layer and our nails, respectively. A sea turtle amputee would become immediately uncomfortable by the pressure of the straps necessary to hold a prosthetic flipper against its body.
“Even if you strap a prosthetic on what’s left of their flipper or on the amputated part, that doesn’t give it any functionality,” Petros said. “It’s just weight for them, it’s really not a thing.”