Turtles are often referred to as tortoises or tortoises as turtles … so, what is the difference? Tortoises and turtles are closely related and are reptiles from the same family. The main difference between them is that the one is a land-dweller (tortoise) and the other a water-dweller (turtle). Both of their bodies are protected by a shell – the shell of the tortoise being heavier and bulky in relation to that of the turtle shell. An easy way to tell the two apart is by looking at the legs. A tortoise has short, sturdy, bent legs designed for moving around on land whereas turtles have webbed feet that make swimming easier.
According to National Geographic, and I quote: “‘Turtle’ is the umbrella term for all 200 species of the Testudines group, which includes turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. Turtles can be aquatic, semi-aquatic, or mostly terrestrial. Tortoises are turtles that live on land and aren’t equipped for water.”
Next question. Why is it important to know the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? The most obvious reason is that if you misidentify the animal, it could be fatal. Imagine what would happen if you release turtle hatchlings into the bush or tortoise hatchlings into the ocean!
The S.M.A.R.T (Stranded Marine Animal Rescue Team) groups jump into action each year when turtle hatchlings start washing up on the beaches of Mossel Bay. On Tuesday, 18 February 2020, the first loggerhead (Caretta caretta) hatchling was reported in the area, a sure sign that the hatchling season had started! These hatchlings are collected by volunteers and instantly transported to the S.M.A.R.T. vet, Dr. Frans de Graaff at the Hartenbos Animal Hospital where he examines and stabilises them.
HOW DO THESE HATCHLINGS END UP ON OUR BEACHES?
Female turtles lay their eggs on the Kwazulu-Natal beaches and once the hatchlings emerge from the eggs during January and February, they make their way to the oceans. The hatchlings follow the currents all along the Cape Coast and at times, are washed off course and onto our beaches. As turtles are not used to the cold waters of the Cape coast, they should receive help as soon as possible when seen or reported on our beaches. Turtles suffer from hypothermia, which makes them very weak.
All the turtles that we find along the South African coast – the green turtles, hawksbill turtles, leatherbacks and loggerheads are all classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List.
FINDING A TURTLE HATCHLING ON A BEACH OR IN THE
1. Please DO NOT put it back into the water as it may drown! When a turtle is weak, it cannot lift its head, which means that it will not be able to get its head above water to breathe.
2. Contact S.M.A.R.T at 072 227 4715 immediately
and a volunteer will collect the hatchling from you.
3. Whilst you are waiting, please keep it at room temperature, out of direct sunlight. If in your vehicle, please do not put the airconditioner on to keep the turtle cool.
4. Place it in a container lined with a soft cloth or towel and ensure that it can breathe. (Do not seal the container.)
5. Please do not place water in the container as this causes the hatchling to stay cold.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE HATCHLINGS?
Once they have been stabilised by our vet, they are transported to Bayworld in Port Elizabeth or the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. There the turtles will receive the necessary evaluation, treatment and nourishment until they are released offshore, back into the currents.