British Divers Marine Life Rescue
British Divers Marine Life Rescue (photo: Steve Marsh)
British Divers Marine Rescue


2009-04-20 12:54:47

Kemp's Ridley to finally go home

Willy the Kemp's ridleyTwo years and three months after two members of British Divers Marine Life Rescue, Sarah Gardiner and Steve Hunt, intervened and prevented members of the public from returning a cold-stunned Kemp's ridley turtle to the sea in January 2007 at Woolacombe, Devon, the turtle is finally going home!

The Kemp's ridley is the most severely endangered marine turtle in the World with most of the small population breeding on only one beach in Mexico.

It is thought that this juvenile turtle was swept from its home range off the eastern coast of America and the North Atlantic Gyre transported it across the Atlantic where strong South-Westerly winds finally diverted the turtle up into the cold waters around the UK. Five of the seven species of marine turtle have been recorded in UK waters but only the massive leatherback turtle has the ability to raise its body temperature to survive our cold seas. The 'hardshell' species; Kemp's ridley, loggerhead, green and hawksbill are classified as vagrants swept off course and will become lethargic and eventually die if they cannot find warmer waters.

This Kemp's ridley was extremely lucky and was relayed to the RSPCA Centre at West Hatch by Inspector Shaun Clements were the turtle was stabilised before being transported to Weymouth Sea Life Centre for rehabilitation. The turtle underwent a slow process of raising its temperature one degree a day as sudden temperature changes can cause thermal shock and kill the animal. No food is administered until the animal is fully active again as it is unable to digest food while it's in this state of torpor. Once fully recovered the process of returning the turtle to America began. The Karen Beasley Turtle Hospital on Topsail Island, North Carolina was selected as the destination as they had a very good release program. Transporting Endangered Species out of Europe to America requires both a US Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Import Permit and a UK CITES Export Permit. Matthew Godfrey of the North Carolina Sea Turtle Project offered to facilitate the US side of things and an application for a US Import Permit was submitted. This is a lengthy process at the best of times. We were also informed of a huge backlog of applications and that a turn-around time is on the scale of several months, and that is after the required 60 days public comment period for each application!

As time dragged-on the sea temperatures off North Carolina dropped below that for a recommended release and a decision was made to hold back 'Willy', as the turtle had now been named, until the next Spring. The process was repeated in 2008 only to be defeated again by falling sea temperatures. In desperation, so Willy would not be held back for a third year, I contacted the American Embassy in London to help monitor the process, in late 2008 the US CITES Import Permit was issued valid for 12 months and the UK Export Permit could then be issued. A release in early 2009 as the sea temperatures rise off North Carolina was now a possibility.

After discussions with Mark Oakley from Sea Life, American Airlines stepped in and offered to fly Willy from Heathrow to North Carolina for free together with Willy’s carer from Weymouth Sea Life Centre, Claire Little.

On Thursday the 23rd April 2009, Willy is scheduled to fly to North Carolina together with a film crew from the BBC One Show. She (there is a very good chance that Willy is a female) will be held at the Topsail Turtle Hospital for maybe three weeks to allow her to acclimatise and get used to her new time zone. After strict US veterinary checks she will be released back into the warm seas off Topsail Island.

Rod Penrose
Strandings Co-ordinator
UK and Republic of Ireland 'TURTLE' Database Manager