When a young green sea turtle was found near dead in Avatiu Harbour its chances of survival seemed slim.
A visitor found the vulnerable turtle floundering in the sea, its flipper bones broken, its pelvis busted, its carapace white and soft.
But the turtle was rescued and now, after 18 months of care is thriving in its own purpose-built tank at the Discover Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre at Arorangi
The turtle – which has been named Ponu – was a year in the care of Josh Utunga of Snorkel Cook Islands. Then the past six onths, it has been looked after at the Marine Centre.
Ponu was diagnosed by the Te Are Manu Vet Clinic as suffering from metabolic bone disorder – the result of having been kept as a pet indoors and without appropriate food.
Turtles need sunlight on their shells and calcium-rich foods to thrive.
It was thought whoever had ill-advisedly kept the turtle as a pet had let it go in the harbour with the hope it might regain its natural health.
If it hadn’t been rescued, the turtle may not have survived another day.
In the care of Stephenie Jansen, who is the vice-president of the Te Ara O Te Onu Society (The Way of the Turtle), Ponu has thrived, doubling its weight in six months– and putting on about five grams each day.
While Ponu – a member of an species listed worldwide as endangered – has provided an added attraction at the Eco Centre, looking after a green sea turtle comes with responsibilities.
With advice provided by a Turtle Hospital in Florida, Ponu is fed on a diet of tiny stream-caught fish injected with vitamins, as well as fresh tuna and seaweed.
Each week the 500 litres of seawater in its tank needs replacing and keeping the water flowing and aerated with an aquarium pump doesn’t come cheap.
And the turtle will soon need a bigger home, as a typical adult turtle can grow to over a metre long and weigh as much as 150kg.
An x-ray is to be taken soon to check to see how the turtle’s bones have healed – but the reality is that Ponu may have to live the rest of its life in a tank as it has no skills to adapt to a life in the wild.
That’s the advice given by the turtle rescue group in Florida, but Jansen hopes that by living out its days at the Eco Centre, Ponu can help educate people about green sea turtles and other endangered sea creatures.
If five-year-old Ponu lives out the full life expectancy of its species – about 80 years for a mature adult – long-term arrangements will have to be made, as it will most probably outlive its caregivers.
While Ponu is still referred to generally as an “it” – no one’s yet been able to work out what his or her sex actually is – it’s affectionately referred to as a “she".
Green sea turtles once populated the seas around Rarotonga, coming ashore to breed on the islands deserted beaches.
It is still possible to find the odd, random nest on Rarotonga, it was reported recently – but no habitats of significance remain. There is nowhere these days for turtles on Rarotonga to come ashore undisturbed.
They can still be found on and around the remote islands of Penrhyn and Palmerston where ongoing scientific study of the species is ongoing.