There are few things as rewarding as releasing a rescued and rehabilitated animal back into its natural habitat. As part of the eastern Valencian community stranding network, the Oceanografic Aquarium in Valencia, Spain works in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture, Environment, Climate Change and Rural Development and the University of Valencia. In 2015, this group rescued 26 injured loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta). These endangered turtles can be found in tropical and subtropical waters around the planet and take decades to reach sexual maturity.

The talented staff at Oceanografic work as part of the stranding network team nursing the animals back to health. This means the veterinarians have to assess every animal when it arrives, determine the nature of its injuries (which is challenging, as the turtles cannot just tell us) and then decide on the best course of treatment. Making a diagnosis usually begins with a visual inspection and then includes x-rays and ultrasounds to learn what the health issues are and determine the appropriate path forward. In some cases that can simply mean administering antibiotics and giving the animal time, in others it can include a visit to the decompression chamber or performing minor surgeries. The good news is that more than 80% of the rescued turtles are released back into the Mediterranean.

A rehabilitated loggerhead turtle is prepared for release.

A rehabilitated loggerhead turtle is prepared for release.

For the animal care professionals who work so hard every day, releases are the moments we live for, but even then our work is not done. A key part of any release is raising awareness of the challenges these animals are facing in the wild.

Data from shoreline cleanups in Canada indicate that 80 per cent of the material collected by volunteers is the result of recreational activities on the shoreline. Most people out for a family picnic or a swim at the beach with their friends would be shocked to learn that plastic bags, straws and other man-made objects can easily be mistaken for food by the turtles. When these items end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans, they can be eaten by animals and result in sickness and even death.

Recently, a small group taking an in-depth course on sea turtles at Oceanografic joined us for a rehabilitated turtle release at a beach in El Saler, a small community just outside of Valencia. Giving people the opportunity to be up close and personal with the turtles is a great way to connect the public with the challenges these animals face, and educate them on the role they can play in helping them. The atmosphere was electric as the students were excited to participate in this rare experience.

It's all too easy for items like this fishing line and weights, entangled with seaweed, to be mistaken for food by endangered turtles.

Fishing line and weights entangled with seaweed are easily mistaken for food by endangered turtles.

But just as we were celebrating this small victory, my eye was drawn to a colourful pile of seaweed right near the release site. As I picked up the mass to have a closer look, I was shocked to discover it included fishing line, weights and a hook. Here was the Oceanografic team, releasing an animal that they had invested literally weeks of effort into observing and treating, and the turtle faced its first obstacle before reaching the water.

This was a powerful reminder of the challenges these animals face every day of their lives in the open Ocean. And a poignant demonstration that we all need to ensure we are not contributing to the problem.[youtube]https://youtu.be/BnynmWkFyXo[/youtube]

Dolf DeJong is the vice president of conservation and education at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. He is currently on assignment at the Oceanografic Aquarium in Valencia, Spain, supporting the staff of Europe’s largest aquarium as they expand their conservation and education efforts. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is a world leader in engaging the public through education on the wonders of aquatic life. We aim to inspire individuals and organizations to make conservation-minded choices for the betterment of our blue planet.

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