This is the second in a series of posts from our AtKisson group intern, Niak Sian Koh, who has been volunteering at a sea turtle conservation project on an island off the east coast of Malaysia. Read her first field report here.

Our journey continues onwards by speedboat to Juara, a village on the east side of Tioman Island. Here, tucked in a far corner of a two-kilometre-long beach, is the Juara Turtle Project (JTP). This grassroots conservation and research project, founded by three ordinary people in 2006 who wanted to make a difference, aims to protect sea turtles, as well as the marine ecosystems around Tioman that both sea turtles and people depend upon for survival.

JTP works hard to patrol the beaches for turtle tracks, identifying nests, collecting eggs to incubate them in a protected hatchery, and then releasing the hatchlings immediately into the ocean. JTP does not keep the hatchlings for an extended period of time; minimal interference in the turtle’s natural life cycle results in a higher survival rate.

The Juara Turtle Project on Tioman Island, Malaysia. Credit: Niak Sian Koh

As we arrive at the centre, the JTP team gets a tip from a neighboring village of a juvenile green sea turtle with buoyancy issues: It cannot dive below the surface of the ocean. The team retrieves the distressed turtle and carefully brings her back to the centre for examination and monitoring.

Upon closer inspection, we discover that this green sea turtle is in very poor condition. She has barnacles all along the underside of her body, suggesting that she had been swimming near the water’s surface and moving very little for quite some time (as it takes a while for barnacles to form).

After doing what they can for her, the JTP team puts the sea turtle in a large tank filled with sea water, along with some sea grass in case she gets hungry for a snack. Unfortunately, she dies within a few hours. The rescue effort was too late.

As this turtle has no visible injuries, the JTP team decides to to perform a necropsy and we interns will assist. Hopefully, this will help us to understand why she died.

A Juara Turtle Project team member begins a necropsy on a dead female green sea turtle. Credit: Niak Sian Koh

Examining the layer of fat under her shell, we see that it’s black in color instead of the normal buttery tones. This means that by the time the JTP team rescued her, this green sea turtle had already used up all of the energy from her fat reserves.

Within her intestines, which are twisted in several spots, we find large, solid masses of micro-plastics and marine litter. Breaking apart the masses with our bare hands is incredibly difficult, because they have become so densely packed and hard. We can barely cut through the masses, even with a knife.

Examining the contents of a green sea turtle’s stomach, separating out the microplastics she consumed. Credit: Niak Sian Koh

The twists indicate that the green sea turtle’s digestive system had tried to move the large obstructions out of her body. But the amount of debris was too much.

Meanwhile, the debris prevented her from digesting the food she had already consumed, and she starved to death.

As we sift through the contents of the turtle’s stomach, we recover an entire bowl full of ocean plastic trash: micro-plastics, fishing line and plastic string. Green sea turtles can easily mistake plastic bags floating in the ocean for jellyfish, which are staples of their diets. Consuming this trash eventually leaves no room in their bellies or digestive tracts for nutritious prey.

Examining the semi-formed exoskeleton under her shell has allowed us to estimate her age: She was around 15 years old, not yet at the age of reproductive maturity. That’s worrying. It takes about 20 to 50 years for green sea turtles to reach a reproductive age. The natural odds of a sea turtle surviving to adulthood in a perfectly healthy marine environment are about one adult per thousand eggs laid. With the negative impacts of human activity on the oceans—overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, and more—those odds drop to one in 10,000.

With chances like those, seeing a healthy sea turtle swimming in the wild is, quite frankly, a miracle.

As for this unfortunate female, JTP will keep her shell, and use it to educate people on how human activities need to be changed if we hope to stop degrading our oceans.