First Day Helping The Sea Turtles

June 18, 2014

A bit history first. On the last day of the summer Ulpan, everyone was asked to go in front and make a small speech in Hebrew about oneself and the future plan here. I remember saying אני רוצה לעזור לחיות בים among other things. The seed of green Zionism was already there even in the earliest days. As the second semester was just begun, I heard from Reuven that he had a friend who helped the sea turtles near Caesarea and it was a once-a-week thing. I carefully remembered this information since. In a recent trip along the seashore from Akko’s Argaman beach with Roy, we found two very big sea turtles on the sand, but dead for long. One of them was entangled in fishing net. I was saddened by the scene and made up my mind to volunteer for this good-natured animal soon. Now that I finally finished the paper draft, caught a break between the stages of research, I have to seize this chance to make the seed grow.

The early Zionist pioneers saw returning to the soil not only through a pragmatic perspective, but also as a means to rebuild, strengthen themselves in body, characteristics and identity. Parallelly, I think practicing green Zionism both does good to our nature and liberates myself from the unhealthy state of office-sitting and computer-staring. So much for the ideological babbling, here is my first day helping the sea turtles.

Israel Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is in Michmoret. It isn’t as easy to reach the exact spot by bus as with nearby places like Caesarea or Netanya. After a constant fear of getting late for the bus or missing the stop to get off since 5 a.m, I got off at Yannay interchange and walked for half an hour to the center. Along the way I passed the Alexander Stream National Park. I should walk inside of its more pleasant and shadier wood in the future, as I was later told that it’s straightforward to reach the center along the beach.

Dotan, a heavily tanned guy in clothes that rejoice to  be untidy, received me with warmth and I walked with delightful curiosity among many sea turtles – all in various water tanks. Each water tank has inflow and outflow of fresh underground sea water, underground for stable temperature. One turtle is very uneasy. it constantly splashed the surface with its fins and tried to get out. But I learned this one is blind because of a collision accident and can no longer be released back to the sea. In the same tank is another one, a quieter one. It doesn’t really surface so I could only vaguely see some plate attached to it. This one is called חופש, it lost two left fins due to lack of blood circulation when entangled in fish net. They attached a flipper to help it balance when it surfaces to breathe. This is actually widely reported in the news. I was also impressed by the messy staff office. But that only makes sense for people dealing with wildlife and work often in the sea. Shortly, another new volunteer Avi came to join us. He looked around 50 and was tall and fit. We gathered in the main working place, a space with a dozen water tanks.

Dotan told us that the volunteers here were usually students from the nearby school (מבואות ים). But now it’s the exam season and all of them just disappeared. Usually when there are newcomers, Dotan gives a one hour presentation and shows them around the center to explain about the work. But due to the shortage of personnel, we had to work immediately and learn things on the go. So without a systematic biological knowledge framework, I set about running around.

The daily routine is, after arriving at 8 a.m. first we took water temperature in each water tank. A temperature sensor is put as far from the inlet as possible to avoid measuring the incoming flow temperature. After measuring each tank, the sensor has to be sprayed with alcohol and dried with new paper. Because different species of turtles carry different bacteria which can be harmful to others. Even with this, we were cautioned to go from the healthiest turtles to the weakest to reduce the risk of healthy turtles being infected.

Next we cleaned the tanks which has feces, leftover fish and lettuce, at the same time observed the state of feces and measured the leftover weight. At first I didn’t know what feces means. I felt a bit silly when told it’s poo. There is a plastic pipe for each tank that serves as a vacuum cleaner. We sank the heavy side into the water and slowly immersed the entire pipe. When it stopped popping out bubbles meaning no air in the pipe, we used one hand to cover one side of the pipe, brought it out of the tank to a lower place and then released. Thus the water near the point of the other heavier side would flow out through, bringing the dirt too. The pipe is quite heavy; it’s difficult to maneuver it underwater either. But I managed. It should be noted that after cleaning one water tank, we are required to spray lightly chlorinated water to our arms before going to the next, again to avoid bacteria transfer. I had so much chlorine treatment that the smell wouldn’t go a way until I took a shower at home.

After recording all these data on a daily sheet, temperature, feces, weight of leftovers etc, we began to prepare turtle food for the day. The green sea turtles are kind of vegetarian. They eat a bit fish and large quantities of lettuce. Some of the other kinds are fed with just fish. The amount of food is more or less calculated by the eater’s weight. (We didn’t do the weight yesterday; it’s done weekly.) We ration the basket of fish according to the number printed on the sheet and then delivered them into each tank. This task can also be tricky, as the the sardines sometimes pricked our fingers with their bones – even though they are dead. For some small young turtles in the nursery, the fish need to be cut into small pieces as well. Though we witnessed a little one nibbling at the whole sardine fish with good determination.

Towards noon, we concluded the routine with measurement of noon water temperature. However we were only half way through when there was another more urgent matter to attend to. After a few hours I just forgot about it. I hope the other measurements were taken care of by some staff. Avi said that the first thing came to his mind is why don’t they just use automatic temperature sensors constantly in the water, and they can monitor and even control in real time. I later raised this question to Yaniv the manager. He pointed at some green tubes and told me they used to have this. It worked for half a year and everyone was happy. But after a while it just stopped working. They fixed it a few times but eventually gave it up.

So basically, this is how a typical morning should look like. But yesterday was really unusual. Apart from the absence of the high school volunteers, there were three recovered big turtles to be released! Plus two young ones. The big ones had GPS devices attached to their shells. The release meant we were going out to the sea! I’ve never sailed out into the sea on a boat before and I was totally excited.

It happened that we were accompanied by a lot of other people. They are from the maritime school Mevuot Yam mentioned before. We were split into six or seven different boats, some in a cruise sort of, some in a motor raft. I was in a fair boat. It has a separate pilot room, a handsome front deck and a shady passenger area. I gazed into the water near or far from aqua to light blue to deep blue tirelessly, enjoying the afternoon wind turning from warm to cool. We were three miles from the shore. I shall happily announce that the port extending from the power plant in Hadera fell far behind us. I was indulged in the feeling so much that I didn’t notice when the three big turtles were released ;-; But the small turtles were carried in our boat. So I watched attentively their release.

My fellow passengers looked really like sea people. They cried out and begged their teacher אפשר להיכנס? Upon approval, some pulled out their flippers, snorkel equipment, some rapidly put off their t-shirt and hurled themselves into the deep water. The teacher took out the small turtles from the basket and it was passed on between hands before finally being released. I guess it was some education but I doubt if the turtle liked it. I myself didn’t even put a finger on any of the turtle we took care of, with all the sanitary precautions in mind. The captain of the boat Lior told me, this maritime high school is very navy oriented. The students come from all over the country. They have different specialties including piloting, marine biology and other technical fields. In the 10th grade, they are required to row north 10 kilometers; in the 11th… I can’t remember; in the 12th they have to sail from here to Cyprus or Greece – each task more amazing than the previous. They already wear semi-navy uniforms in the campus. Although through my untrained eyes, it looks just like the real navy uniform, or the air force uniform. After knowing all these, I was left completely in awe for these young fellows.

On our way back, the sea people coming back from the water all went to the front deck to bake themselves. I sat alone for a while facing the east. However I was worried to notice that while the sky was clear, the land and the towns on it were enveloped by a stretch of thin yellow. From the north to the south as far I could see, it was all like this. When I was on the land I never noticed this unpleasant ambiance. Only when standing far enough one can see the bigger picture. I thought sometimes when the wind comes from the south, there could be sandstorms. But Lior said it was north wind on that day. And this yellow atmosphere is known to come from the power plant in Hadera, which has four tall chimneys as its landmark.

I went home after disembarking. Luckily even the rare buses didn’t take long to wait. I had fun and felt replenished after laboring and sweating for good cause, though the trip was overshadowed by some environmental problems. I know after the freshness disappears, the work will become repetitious and tedious. But I’m all fired up to take it on. Next time when I go, I will prepare better. I should buy a hat, a large bottle of sunscreen. Need to get ready to get dirty and drink adequately. Bring swimsuits in case there’s free time to have fun. Hopefully there will be more volunteers with us. Hopefully I’ll get a copy of the footage and photos of that day, as there were TV crews with us. Maybe I’ll find myself in it. And also hopefully I’ll be able to learn the basics of sea turtle biology. It doesn’t feel right after working with them, that I can’t even distinguish different types of sea turtles!

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