Head injuries becoming a norm in Kefalonia

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Anthropogenic activity is sadly one of the biggest threats that sea turtles face worldwide. In Kefalonia, some of the most common causes of injury and death amongst adult turtles are entanglement and drowning in fishing net, entanglement or ingestion of fishing line and hooks and also boat and propeller strikes. More and more frequently these cases are being encountered by the Wildlife Sense team.

2019 Head Injuries Kefalonia

Education, awareness and a change in attitude can often be all that is needed to turn the tables of fortune in a positive direction for a species that is threatened by anthropogenic activity. The sea turtles of Kefalonia, just like all sea turtles worldwide come into contact with a multitude of dangers posed by humans and unfortunately, these encounters cost many their lives. It is for this reason that the average lifespan of a Greek turtle can be cut in half rather than the potential longevity of over 60 plus years. The key to protecting turtles from these dangers lies in spreading knowledge and understanding of these animals and their behaviour and how important they are to the ecosystems they inhabit. 

The education process is a lengthy one and sadly we are reminded all too often that the job is far from done. The most recent case of an injured turtle was on Friday 12th July. Whilst out on an expedition, George from Sea Kayaking Kefalonia had been in touch with the Wildlife Sense project coordinators about a turtle with a severe head injury, floating just offshore near to the beach Platis Gialos, Lassi. This call was made from a Kayak and George was able to paddle whilst guiding the turtle alongside towards a member of the Wildlife Sense team and we are grateful for his quick thinking and actions. 

It was immediately clear that this turtle, a young male loggerhead, was in a disastrous condition. Until very recently it had been a very healthy turtle. The body was full and heavy with a clean lush colour to the carapace and skin. This paled into insignificance when compared with the state of the animal’s head. The injuries sustained made it hard to understand how this turtle was still responsive, let alone breathing. 

The loggerhead was rushed straight to local vet Spiridoula who examined the injury and administered immediate first aid to reduce swelling and cleaned the affected areas as gently as possible. As the turtle lay on the examination table the team could fully assess the situation and a scenario began to form as to how the turtle had come to be found this way. 

Faint abrasions were visible near the shoulder joint of both front flippers suggesting entanglement for a very brief amount of time in a net. The head injury suggested an extremely heavy and concentrated force had struck the turtle from above, likely more than once. It all pointed towards entanglement in net followed by being stuck or stabbed at to try and dislodge the turtle. 

The viciousness of the injury was an extremely upsetting sight to behold. The top left side of the head had been left obliterated. Part of the brain was visible but also protruding beyond the skull line. Bone fragments were flapping loosely, attached by threads of soft tissue whilst other fragments were buried or wedged inside the open wounds. It was likely there was a substantial amount of pressure on the brain as a result of the bone fragments pushed inwards. Additionally, the left eye was damaged beyond conceivable repair and had been pushed out beyond its socket. The prognosis from the medical professionals consulted was very unoptimistic and at the best, the turtle was certainly going to lose its eye completely.

Generally, there is an air of hope amongst the team with any rescue of a live turtle that maybe there can be a path to eventual recovery. However, in this case, there was no positive gut feeling from anyone. Miraculously the turtle survived through to morning under the constant and committed observation of the team, working throughout the night in shifts. The turtle, named ‘Platis’ after the beach he was found near, was then driven by David Green to the Archelon rescue centre in Athens. To our surprise, he survived the lengthy transit and perhaps he will continue to defy the odds. But this is one of the worst cases of human turtle conflict we have seen in recent years. The Levante Ferries company were also absolutely indispensable in providing safe and swift passage for the turtle and team from Poros to Kyllini with no charge.

There are sinister clues that this specific kind of blatant attack is more common than perhaps first thought. The loggerheads of Argostoli harbour, which are monitored during morning shifts by volunteers and also as part of a photo ID programme often show up with white marks on the tops of their heads. Some very faint and some far more substantial with all varying degrees in-between. These turtles bear the scars from interactions not dissimilar to that which caused Platis’ injury. In these instances, they were able to escape and recover, although some have still needed medical attention.

When historic photo catalogues are revisited it is concerning how regularly these scars crop up. Signs that there is a negative view of turtles and that some people react in an extremely hostile way when one is encountered. 

Turtles are most often encountered by the people who know the sea the best. Who live and work on, in and alongside its waters. Ironically one of the species biggest threats has the potential to be its greatest ally. Until there is a shift in understanding and attitude, the animals that share this incredibly vast, diverse and beautiful habitat will continue to suffer.

Written by Harry Thomas

Tags: Kefalonia, threats, rehabilitation