restoration and rehabilitation

The Ocean Watch network in Goa is a unique one. Established in 2017, it is a collaborative public-private partnership set up by Terra Conscious, Goa State Forest Department and Drishti Marine Services. The network has trained lifeguards all along the coast to handle stranded sea turtles and cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and whales) and collect data for the same. It is a robust network of concerned citizens working together to save Goa’s marine denizens.

The number of stranded animals recorded by this network is immense, with over 400 cases reported in the first 5 years. The next step would be to incorporate a veterinary component to address the injuries and diseases suffered by the stranded animals. In 2021, ReefWatch began providing veterinary support to the network, conducting necropsies, collecting samples, and creating a protocol for the treatment of stranded marine megafauna. From the period of March 2021 to March 2023, the ReefWatch team has conducted 124 post mortems and gut analyses on turtles, dolphins and pelagic birds, and handled 143 cases of live strandings across the state.

This network is particularly active l during the monsoon period. The highest number of strandings are reported in June, most of them live sea turtles with injuries. Many turtles were observed to have injuries potentially caused by ghost nets, such as cut and severed flippers.

A few were washed ashore while caught in a net and had to be freed by rescuers. Some cases even demonstrated the presence of parasites in turtles, causing severe weakness, if not death, of the animal. One of the most startling revelations has been the finding of a bundled fishing net in the gut of some dolphins. Although the dolphins are able to survive for quite a while in this state, the presence of these nets in the animal’s stomach is likely to cause impaction and prolonged starvation.

This is only the first step in understanding the anthropogenic effects on marine life. Each case provides us with an indication of what might be causing illness and death amongst these animals. Over time, this data will provide useful insights into the state of our oceans and present potential avenues for more research and intervention.

Successful Releases

It’s not all bleak! Since the project began, we have successfully treated and released 19 turtles and birds. Watching these animals take off into their natural habitat is beyond gratifying, and there are a few special cases that really stood out.

Fortunate Tern of events
A fortunate tern of events

A Sandwich Tern came to us with the top half of its beak broken off completely. Risk of infection aside, this injury would have made it impossible for the bird to forage and catch fish. The bird would have had to be hand fed, kept in captivity for the rest of its life. Enter veterinarians Dr. Shantanu, Dr. Charmaine, and (human) dentist Dr. Schuyler Pereira. With dental resin ordinarily used to fill cavities, they constructed a new beak and fixed it on to the bird’s upper jaw. The tern was released two days after the procedure and the rest is history!

Lady Mary of Mobor

In June of 2021, a large female Olive Ridley was found on Mobor beach. She was missing both her flippers on the right side of her body. They were not fresh wounds, which meant that she had been living like this for a while. Even some of the lifeguards claimed to have encountered her the previous monsoon. This is likely a case of exceptional resilience- she is able to live her life freely despite what we would consider “life-threatening” injuries! The water must just have been too rough for her to navigate. The ReefWatch team arranged for a tank to be placed on the beach, close to the Lifeguard tower. She spent two weeks getting spoiled silly by her admirers- and there were a number of them! The Drishti Lifesavers at Mobor beach would clean out her tank on a regular basis, and committed volunteers would feed her her favourite fish- sardines and mackerels- every morning. Two weeks of pampering, and she was loaded behind a jetskii and taken past the turbulent breaker line by the lifeguards to return to her ocean home.

Lady of Mobor
Flipper number four-and-three-quarters
Flipper number four-and-three-quarters

Lifeguards on Colva beach found a young Olive Ridley was found stuck in a ghost net, completely unable to move. When cut free, we found she had some significant injuries. All of her flipper were badly cut- one almost entirely severed off. Decisions had to be made, and fast. The ReefWatch veterinarians considered amputation but ultimately decided it was too much of a risk. Turtles are incredibly resilient. Blood flow to the rest of the flipper hadn’t stopped and she seemed to be using the flipper to balance herself in the water. Now all we had to do was get the wound to heal. Simple, right? What followed was 45 days of daily dressings of betadine to clean the wound and honey to promote healing. The forest guards at the Morjim Turtle Nesting Centre were instrumental in her recovery, plying her with fresh prawns and cleaning out her tank every single day. She was released after 47 days of treatment.