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a ‘midas’ touch for chelonia mydas … Aziza nursed back to health … good to go

PAAAFR Director HH Sheikh Mohamed Al Yousif (centre) is a strong advocate for sea turtle protection. He’s pictured here with Biology Researcher Abdullah Al Sayed Omar (left), and Fisheries Lab Supervisor Dr Husain Al Sayegh – Picture by Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud

Aziza is a VIP guest at the Public Authority for Agriculture and Fisheries Lab in Amghara, with a team of professionals catering to her every need. The victim of a boat propeller strike, Aziza is a green turtle (Chelonia mydas) found by the Coast Guard with serious damage to her shell, near Bubiyan Island in the northern part of Kuwait Bay.

Weighing nearly 100 kilos and estimated to be between 50 and 70 years of age, Aziza’s predicament pushed the lab team to the limits of their capabilities as well as their budget. Her ultimate success story is a tribute to the incredible ingenuity, commitment, and exceptional teamwork of her caretakers.

On a sunny spring morning in the peaceful premises of the lab, located in the desert just outside of Jahra, the sea turtle treatment team members are gathered around Aziza’s tank. It is housed in a bright and airy greenhouse, because sick and injured sea turtles, just like human patients, have less depression and respond better in natural rather than artificial light.

These are Aziza’s last days in the lab. Fully recovered, she will soon be released back into the sea, just in time for the mating season. By turtle standards, Aziza is still young enough to breed and return to the shores of her birth to lay up to one hundred eggs, hopefully adding a healthy number of hatchlings to this endangered species. Sea turtles can still lay eggs at the age of 100 and are known to live up to 300 years.

The mood among the team, led by Fisheries Lab Supervisor Dr Husain Al Sayegh, is contemplative in view of Aziza’s imminent departure. After more than five months of close daily contact, this magnificent creature has impressed them with her resilience and her friendly, affectionate nature, and has clearly stolen a piece of everyone’s heart.

Dr Husain’s team includes Veterinarian Dr Tamara Qabazard, Biology Researcher Abdullah Al Sayed Omar, and Lab Assistants Badrya Al Ajmi, Amani Al Shammari, and Mohammed Sameer Hamooda. Known for her almost magical healing abilities, Dr Tamara serves as veterinarian not only for the fisheries lab but also for Kuwait Zoo and The Scientific Center, and as Collaborating Veterinarian with Sorbonne University for Sea Turtle Rehabilitation and Rescue in Abu Dhabi. Due to commitments at the zoo she is not present at the lab this morning.

Abdullah is young, bright, and enterprising. He studied Marine Sciences at Griffith University on Australia’s Gold Coast and is Dr Husain’s right-hand man. Badrya and Amani are two glamorous-looking young women who hold degrees in Laboratory Sciences from Kuwait’s Authority for Applied Education and Training. Never hesitant to get manicured fingers wet, they take a hands-on approach in caring for Aziza. Mohammed, another dedicated team member, is willing to tackle all tasks, including driving a tractor, in order to come to the aid of sea turtles.

Under the kind, calm, and capable leadership of Dr Husain, who holds a Master’s Degree in Marine Biology from Nova Southeastern University in Florida, the team works as a creative, cohesive unit, much to the benefit of Aziza and the other sea turtles that need their services.

Badrya and Amani lovingly feed Aziza a head of iceberg lettuce, her favorite food, while Husain recalls the day the enormous sea turtle was found floating in the estuary near the northern shore of Bubiyan Island.  “It was the afternoon of Oct 31, 2018, when the Coast Guard reported an injured turtle to us. Recovering her and getting her here involved some great coordination between the Coast Guard  and the Fisheries Monitoring Division of the Public Authority for Agricultural Affairs and Fish Resources (PAAAFR),” he says. “It took a few hours for the Coast Guard to pull her up on their boat. They sent me a picture of her and I rushed out to buy a children’s plastic swimming pool and set it up in the lab. Within several hours she was loaded onto a flatbed truck and brought here to Amghara.”

While the lab team had already successfully treated and released five different rescued sea turtles prior to Aziza’s arrival, none of them had been anywhere near her size and weight. It takes five strong men to lift the struggling turtle, who does not like to be carried, although in the meantime she has developed a liking for having her head scratched and her shell rubbed.

Husain reports that most of the sea turtles rescued in Kuwait are found in a poor state, weak, hungry, and often dehydrated.  Thus standard procedure is to first keep them in fresh water in order to aid rehydration and gradually adjust the salinity from fresh water to seawater during their treatment. Late in the evening, with Aziza safely settled in the fresh water swimming pool, Husain was able to get some rest before returning the next morning.

Dr Tamara was called in and she and Husain began a thorough assessment of Aziza’s condition. “There are certain protocols to follow when dealing with injured sea turtles, but for the most part you have to figure things out on your own, and you know that if you do something wrong they could die,” remarks Husain. “In Aziza’s case she had an injury on her shell that was fifteen centimeters long, and three centimeters wide at the biggest gap. The propeller had missed her neck by millimeters, so she just narrowly escaped death.”  

Husain explains that the difficulty with a break in a turtle’s shell is that the shell is full of nerves so it’s very painful, just like when a human breaks a bone. The gash made by the propeller was deep, so air became trapped inside Aziza’s shell. Husain and Dr Tamara developed a treatment plan for the green turtle which included administering antibiotics and caring for the wound.

“To mend the shell we used Promogran, a synthetic bone scaffold used to treat people, which looks like a sponge and helps the tissue form bone,” Husain explains.

Aziza spent two weeks in the swimming pool. Once the wound had healed sufficiently she was moved into a larger, deeper tank. Husain had visited the aquarium at the Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre recently, and learned that the water temperature control and filtration system for Aziza’s tank, which his team had helped him install, was up to par with their aquarium systems, just a bit smaller.

“At this point the wound was eighty per cent closed but there was still air trapped inside her shell,” says Husain. “For the next two weeks she tried to submerge. We thought we might have to do an operation to release the air but she finally got down on her own, with the water pressure removing the gasses. We were happy we didn’t have to go for the invasive treatment.”

By the second week of February, Aziza’s shell had healed completely and she was physically ready to be returned to the sea, except that by this time the water temperature was too cold. The team members explain that Kuwait is a vital feeding, breeding and nesting area for green turtles and hawksbills (Eretmochelys imbricate), another variety of critically endangered sea turtle. The islands of Kubbar, Qaruh, and Umm Al Maradim, in Kuwait’s southern waters, are their primary nesting grounds. When our water temperatures drop in the winter the sea turtles migrate to warmer waters further south.  It’s estimated that a total of twenty sea turtles return to Kuwait annually in the spring.

Sea turtles have existed for over 100 million years. There are seven species globally and all are either threatened or endangered species, mostly due to human impact. That’s one of the reasons the members of the lab team feel so strongly about helping them.

“This isn’t just our planet, it belongs to all God’s creatures,” says Husain.

The marine biologist quotes a saying popular among old Kuwaiti sailors: the whale is the sheikh of the sea and the sea turtle is the sea’s treasure. “Kuwaiti sailors have always said that sea turtles bring good luck,” he comments. 

“It’s true!” Badrya interjects. “So many good things have happened to us since Aziza came here. She’s an intelligent soul and we have to do our best to care for her. That’s why we all work together and help each other. And we have learned so much from Husain, Dr Tamara, and Abdullah.”

For his part, Husain expresses appreciation for his outstanding team members. “They are as rare as the sea turtles that find their way here. The work here is very intense and only the most committed people can handle it.”

Husain is also grateful for the support of PAAAFR’s Director, HH Sheikh Mohammed Al Yousif Al Sabah, who has visited the lab and takes a keen interest in the sea turtle treatment program. “It’s really fortunate for us that His Highness is very knowledgeable about sea turtles and is such a strong advocate for their protection,” he says.

Abdullah takes a net and skims up Aziza’s leftover lettuce bits, giving the great sea turtle an affectionate pat on the head. Amani sighs and looks somber. “We want her to have a good life in the sea, but we are very sad to see her go,” she says.

On Sunday, April 7th, during the afternoon high tide, the team will gather on the northern shores of Kuwait Bay to bid farewell to Aziza. After they release the green turtle into the waters of the Arabian Gulf they can congratulate themselves on a job well done and prepare for the next turtle that needs their help.

Dr Husain’s team includes

Veterinarian Dr Tamara Qabazard, Biology

Researcher Abdullah Al Sayed Omar,

and Lab Assistants Badrya Al Ajmi,

Amani Al Shammari, and Mohammed Sameer

Hamooda. Known for her almost magical healing abilities, Dr Tamara serves as veterinarian not only for the fisheries lab but also for Kuwait Zoo and The Scientific Center, and as Collaborating Veterinarian with Sorbonne University for Sea Turtle Rehabilitation and Rescue in Abu Dhabi. Due to commitments at the zoo she is not present at the lab this morning.

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