At This Israeli Turtles Hospital, Oil Spill Victims Are Saved With Q-tips and Mayonnaise

At the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center, sea turtles are on the mend after the massive oil spill and might be released back to nature soon. The little creatures can’t eat solid food yet

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Saving a small sea turtle at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center, yesterday.
Saving a small sea turtle at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center, yesterday.Credit: Rami Shllush
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

In a small office near the beach between Tel Aviv and Haifa, the talk is on the bowel movements of the new patients. The young turtles suffering from the oil spill over the weekend have been living on mayonnaise only, which actually helps the little creatures recover.

In the intensive care room, Guy Ivgy is preparing a syringe to feed 6-month-old Aloha. But when the turtle is on the table, Ivgy discovers vestiges of tar in its mouth. He gently removes the dirt with a cotton swab and inserts a long syringe filled with mayo.

The next in line is sea turtle Ruhama. Victims of the tar, like all turtles at the hospital, have been named after the people who found them, or they received the name of the finder's choosing. There’s also an Oleg, a Yoni, a Corinne and a Shlomi.

A veterinarian holding a sea turtle covered with tar at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center. Credit: Rami Shllush

Yaniv Levy, the founder and director of the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center, says 27 turtles or so are hospitalized there. Six of them arrived with tar damage.

“They all got here with a coat of tar on their heads, and in their eyes, nostrils, mouth, digestive system and stomach,” he says. “With this kind of damage they have no chance to survive without treatment. We removed the tar from their nostrils and eyes so they could breathe and see.”

Olga Rybarak, who has worked at the hospital for about a year, adds: “It was shocking. This is the first time that I’ve seen a tar disaster. One of our volunteers, Shir Sassoon, stood and cleaned each turtle for an hour – their eyes, their mouths, and that’s not enough. But when you see the turtle clean, it’s really satisfying.”

Treating a sea turtle. 'They all got here with a coat of tar on their heads, and in their eyes, nostrils, mouth, digestive system and stomach.'Credit: Rami Shlush

Another worker, Grigory Kobzar, says: “The little ones that we saw on the first day, it was heartbreaking.”

The treatment, Levy notes, is slow and complex. First they use vegetable oil that thins the tar (the workers wonder why they weren’t told about that when they swam in the sea as children). Then comes the mayonnaise – it dilutes the tar and removes it from the sides of the stomach and intestines. And it contains fats and proteins that nourish the turtles.

Treating sea turtle Ruhama

Ordinarily these animals eat molluscs, crabs, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. “If they eat regular food, it turns into a lump with the tar and could cause blockages, which is why we don’t give them solid foods during the first days,” Levy says.

The turtles that were harmed by the tar are young, 5 months old to a year and a half, and very small compared to several of the giants being treated at the hospital. The shells of the young ones are as long as 25 centimeters (10 inches).

Veterinarians at the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center feed a sea turtle covered with tar. Credit: Rami Shllush

“Young sea turtles that age spend the first years of their lives in the open sea, in places with a sea floor a kilometer [0.6 miles] deep or more,” Levy says, so he assumes that the oil spill happened far from the coast.

The turtles, he adds, “are in a period of passive migration. In the ocean they use the algae carpets, are nourished by the small creatures on them and rest on them. In the Mediterranean they apparently tried to float on the tar, because they’re used to floating on things in the sea, and that’s why they got into even more trouble.”

A veterinarian holds a sea turtle that was covered with tar. 'If they eat regular food, it turns into a lump with the tar and could cause blockages.'Credit: Rami Shlush

In his 22 years at the hospital Levy has seen tar pollution, “but nothing like this.” He estimates that in all, hundreds of turtles were harmed. The condition of the hospitalized animals after a few days of care is encouraging.

“A little more mayonnaise and they’ll all recover and get back to natural food,” Levy says, adding that he thinks they can be released within a month or two, depending on the results of their blood tests.

“We get regular reports from the hotline [of the Nature and Parks Authority, to which the turtle rescue center belongs] and from people who spend time at the beach – runners, swimmers, yacht owners, surfers,” Levy says.

A sea turtle covered with tar at Gedor Sea Reserve, Israel, last Saturday.Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP

“Every year when there’s a storm people come to the beaches and brief us, and then we make sure that the turtles get to us, either with volunteers or with the animal-bulance.” Levy, incidentally, drives the only “turtle-bulance” in Israel.

Tar is normally a rare occurrence among the hundreds of turtles that have been checked in at the hospital over the years. Hundreds have been harmed by fishermen – whether by drowning, entanglement in nets or cuts from fishing gear, which sometimes costs a turtle limbs. There is also damage from shock waves resulting from explosions at sea, and injuries from seacraft, often fractures of the skull or shell.

“The big hit in recent years is getting entangled in plastic bags, which apparently originate on ships making live deliveries,” Levy says. “They throw them into the sea and the turtles float on them as on algae carpets, and get entangled.”

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