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Reporter's notebook

After surviving marine oil spill, young turtles heal with fish, mayo and love

21 sea turtles were brought to the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center, but most were already dead from tar; now the lucky remaining 6 are recovering alongside other injured turtles

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Yaniv Levy, Director of the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center in Michmoret, northern Israel, holds up one of six juvenile turtles being treated following an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, March 2, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Feeding time for the six lucky turtles that survived an oil spill and are being treated at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center at Michmoret, northern Israel, March 2, 2012. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Flapping their tiny flippers, the baby sea turtles were not enjoying their moment of fame in front of the cameras.

But they are lucky to be alive after what has been, in turtle terms, the gravest oil spill-related disaster in living memory.

On February 18, following serious storms, vast quantities of tar began appearing along most of Israel’s 195 kilometers of Mediterranean coastline, apparently resulting from an oil spill at sea, which is still being investigated.

Of 21 young sea turtles washed to shore along with copious amounts of tar and brought to the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center earlier this month, 15 were already dead, suffocated by the sticky black goo. Nearly all of them were between six to 18 months old and weighed just 100 to 200 grams (3.5 to 7 ounces).

A woman holds a dead sea turtle covered in tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea at the Gador nature reserve near Hadera, northern Israel, February 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Nobody knows how many more may have perished further out to sea. The center’s director, Yaniv Levy, thought hundreds, or even more, could have been affected.

Most were washed up between Palmachim, south of Tel Aviv, and Haifa in the north.

Others were swept onto beaches in Lebanon and are being treated there, although no precise figures are available.

At the turtle rescue center at Michmoret, the surviving six — three green turtles and three loggerheads — are well on their way to recovery.

“All they need now is TLC,” said Levy during a media visit on Tuesday. Tender loving care.

Yaniv Levy, director of the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center in Michmoret, northern Israel, holds up one of six juvenile turtles being treated following an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, March 2, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Turtle hatchlings spend up to a decade in the open seas until they return to coastal waters to forage, mature, and eventually mate.

During their oceanic stage, they feed on plankton and like to crawl onto floating mats of seaweed. Many of the turtles brought to the center were covered in tar from the head down to the middle of their bodies, indicating that they had mistaken the tar for seaweed and tried to climb aboard, before getting stuck.

After cleaning away the external tar with vegetable oil, center staff initially spent several days inserting diluted mayonnaise into the survivors’ stomachs. This captured the attention of the media worldwide, although according to Levy, using mayonnaise in such circumstances is now established procedure among turtle doctors worldwide.

The oil in the mayonnaise helps to dilute and push out the tar stuck onto the walls of the digestive system so that food doesn’t get blocked, while the egg supplies critical fats and proteins to a turtle that may not have eaten for days.

A 6-month-old green sea turtle is cleaned from tar after an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea; at Israel’s Sea Turtle Rescue Center in Michmoret, Israel, February 23, 2021.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Now the little survivors are flapping around in a row of six tanks, enjoying fresh fish (loggerheads eat shellfish out at sea) or lettuce (green turtles usually eat algae).

But the danger is not yet over.

Because turtle metabolism is slow, it can take two to three weeks for infections and other health problems to be detected. “The tar is very toxic and can affect the gall bladder and the kidneys,” Levy said.

Furthermore, a healthy turtle secretes salt from the water through special glands next to the eyes, so that in effect, it always looks as if it’s crying. If these become blocked, heart problems and death can ensue.

Feeding time for the six lucky turtles that survived an oil spill and are being treated at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center at Michmoret, northern Israel, March 2, 2012. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

If all goes well, the juveniles will be taken out to sea and released in the coming weeks.

The center is launching an ecological monitoring program to chart what happens as the result of this disaster — to help it prepare for the next.

Levy said the oil disaster was not of the same magnitude as the Exxon Valdez tanker, which spilled 37,000 tons, or 10.8 million gallons, of crude oil into the sea west of Alaska in 1989. “But for Israel, it’s very significant. There is no record of so many turtles being damaged like this by oil,” he said.

Soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach following an offshore oil spill that drenched most of the Israeli coastline, February 22, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)`

A spokeswoman for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which is responsible for the center, said that people who had been working for the INPA for 30 years had never seen such quantities of tar on Israel’s beaches.

Green sea turtles are endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, while loggerheads in the Mediterranean are listed as a species of least concern.

Weekly weighing time for Tanga at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center in Michmoret, northern Israel, March 2, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

An estimated 8,000 loggerhead and 2,000 green turtle egg clutches are laid in the central and eastern Mediterranean each year.

The center, which has been in operation since 1999, helps individuals turtles who are found and also works on rehabilitating local populations, as well as marine turtle research.

Turtles affected by the oil spill are currently the minority there, where some 30 injured turtles are currently in residence, named by whoever found them.

Bougi (the nickname of former Labour Party Leader Yitzhak Herzog) was found in the Ashdod port in southern Israel having almost drowned in a fishing net. Hofesh (Freedom) had become tangled up in trash. Shlomit, found in Nahariya in northern Israel, sustained a head injury, probably from a marine vessel or a fishing hook.

Among the treatments the turtles get is a weekly scrubbing by staff and volunteers.

Out at sea, turtles visit “cleaning stations” where fish attend to their ablutionary needs by picking the algae off of them. They also rub themselves against rocks to get rid of barnacles and other small creatures that set up home on their shells.

On Tuesday, it was Tanga’s turn for the weekly superwash.

Brought in by the navy, she is one of a long list of mature turtles that have come to the facility suffering from shock sustained from underwater explosions.

These are carried out during the laying of marine infrastructure, naval exercises, seismic surveys, oil and gas exploration and the illegal use of explosives for fishing. The explosions cause injuries to turtle ears and lungs. Tanga is being treated with antibiotics and plenty of rest.

Clean behind your ears: Tanga gets a wash at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center in Michmoret, northern Israel, March 2, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Volunteers Barak and Hilik scrubbed her shell before measuring her (64.9 centimeters, 25.6 inches) and weighing her (34.3 kilograms, 75.6 pounds).

Happily, she has put on weight.

If you spot a turtle on the beach, or one that doesn’t swim away if you approach it in the sea, there is something wrong and you should call the INPA hotline at *3639.

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