A live stranding of a loggerhead turtle in Donegal

27th Jan 2015

Amanda Doherty, Secretary of Donegal IWDG recounts the story of the finding of  Columba the Turtle:

Long standing IWDG member, Gareth Doherty and main driver behind the new IWDG local group in Donegal received a phone call at about 13:00 on Saturday 24 January from a very worried lady, Grainne.  Her concerns were for a turtle she had discovered whilst walking her dog, on the 'big' beach at Glencolmcille.  Glencolmcille is certainly not known for its beaches as it is a horseshoe type cove where there is a small beach separated by rocks to a larger beach.  Its entrance is quite tight as there are rocky shores and cliffs stretching on both sides, to give you an idea of the roughness of the coast, to the North there’s Glenhead and Malin Beg and the South takes you towards Slieve League the highest sea cliffs in Europe !  AND the turtle was still alive!

From Grainne's description we thought there was a strong possibility it was a loggerhead turtle, but, did not want to jump to conclusions. Grainne lived just up from the beach, and Gareth knew no matter what type of turtle it was, it would be very cold, Grainne had already transported it to her home.  We agreed to come over and have a look and possibly collect it.  Gareth advised her to keep it outside, out of the wind and keep it wet. It transpired that there had been a particularly high tide the evening before and so it was concluded that the turtle must have came in with that as there was no tracks of any sort around the turtle.  The sea had been rough enough.

As chance would have it, we were getting ready to venture a little further up the coast. There have been lots of standings’ of common dolphins in NW Donegal which made us want to check out the beaches at Magheroarty.  But instead we were destined to head southwards for about 50 miles.  We picked up a pair of gloves and there was already a massive holdall in the boot.

Before we were on our way we contacted IWDG and got through to Padraig Whooley, we had a phone number of the Galway Atlantiquarium which had a recent success story of its own rehabilitating a loggerhead turtle called Leona.  So we headed on our way and we received further advice from Joanne from Galway Atlantiquarium, who importantly let us know we had gave the right advice, she also gave us the number of the Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry, Co.Down.  Simon Berrow also got back to us, with further information. 

Eventually we arrived and Grainne gave us a great welcome.  As she was from Gweedore she had heard of Gareth and the Donegal IWDG and consequently we were her first port of call.  We were all amazed at the size of our turtle that just about fitted into a fish box which had sand on the bottom so the turtle was on it... Great intuition by a great lady.  Grainne had already affectionately named the turtle, 'Columba.'  Gareth identified the turtle as a Loggerhead, we just weren't sure of its sex.

Grainne also informed us of a stranding that was on the smaller beach.  So as we were there we took a walk onto the beach, to our surprise it was another rare specimen a beaked whale, which had been there quite a while. We got a few photos, and of course Gareth later reported the stranding to IWDG.    Grainne has photos that she will post onto the Donegal IWDG face book page.  Looking out to sea the swell at the mouth of the inlet was at least 20mtrs!

When we got Columba back to Gweedore at about 20:30hrs, we took the advice of Simon and Joanne; kept the turtle out of the weather, we done this in a run down cottage 'Teach Jamsie's', there was no heating but there was a shower tray.  This enabled us to keep pouring water on him.  We used freshwater at about 15°C as the turtle would have been severely dehydrated, and eventually his eyes became more prominent which was a good sign, but still no movement and not much breathing.  Apparently turtles drink seawater but their system removes the salt, so this just simplified it for him.  So although we never attempted to make him drink, when the water was being poured there was water around his mouth. At about 23:00hrs Columba had a poo, yes, never been so delighted to see an animal poo; it was watery but definitely a smelly salty sea poo by Columba.  We left him there at about 2:00am after a good soaking and went back to him at 4:00 and then at about 6:00am He had made it through the night.

Columba was not really getting any better.  Preparations had to be made so we could leave early for the Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry, Co Down; Gareth had animals to feed etc. But we planned to go shortly after daylight and got on the road about 9:00hrs

On the journey up we had to stop a few times to wet Columba, of course during the road journey we had the thought of a spray – it would have made this job a lot easier!  Anyway we got to Portaferry about 13:00hrs

Tania and Leslie were there to greet us.  Tania assessed his age to be around 12/13 years making him a sub-adult (teenager to us).  Their sex is not determinable until they reach sexual maturity at about 30 years of age, so we don't really know if it is actually a male or female, but we refer to Columba as his name orientates.  They took his weight in the bag, 15 kilos and the bag weighed 3 making our Columba 12 kilos.  The measurement was taken by measuring the shell.  Approx 19” (50cm) long 17” (45cm) wide.  He was in a very weak state, and the journey had definitely taken it out of him.  His eyes were dark and no longer protruding, his shell seemed to be darker as well. 

The tank was ready for him at 12°C water temperature, Columba was lifeless and Tania had to put some polystyrene under his front half to avoid him drowning.  She had been referring to her notes, which had shown that on more than one occasion 16°C had been a monumental heat.  She decided that as Columba was in such a bad way that instead of the 1° a day (Usual for hypothermia), and because he had already had some heat around him in the car etc. She would chance a quicker increase, so she put the tank up to 15° quite quickly... it was a gamble but really necessary if he was to have any chance at all of survival, so drastic measures had to be taken.

Again there was little improvement, Columba was barely taking a breath, so after a couple of hours the temperature was raised in the tank to 16°  After a while Columba started to move ever so slightly, as in you weren't really sure if it was him moving or the bubbles making him move.  Then he raised his head and took a big gulp of air.  And started moving, his flippers were moving slowly but they are effective and he was reaching the end of the tank with a couple of flicks.  He even seemed to try and dive.  It was a great result. 

Tania informed us that the tank would be kept at that heat overnight, these animals are used a sea temperature of 24° so it is still very early days yet, and she would let us know how things progress.

This morning she text Gareth letting him know that Columba had been active through the night but was barely moving this morning.  She hopes he is merely resting, the vet later gave him some antibiotics - luckily it is the same vet that tended Leon. The next few days will be critical and in the meantime we can only hope and pray.

Tania also said she would be putting the story up on the Exploris face book page and updating a blog.  We will also put updates on the Donegal IWDG face book page; it also has more photos of Columba.

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