The Olive Ridley Project (ORP) is a not-for-profit organisation on a mission to protect sea turtles and their habitats through rescue and rehabilitation; scientific research; and education and outreach. Their team consists of scientists, veterinarians, conservationists and volunteers working towards preventing the decline of sea turtles and safeguarding their habitats.
We had a small chat with some members of ORP following the highly-successful conclusion of their Vaavoshi Festival.
1. Could you give us a brief history of ORP in the Maldives? What are some of the major milestones that you have achieved so far?
ORP has been operating in the Maldives since 2013. In 2017, we opened the first veterinarian-run rescue centre in the country in Baa atoll, and also established a research base for sea turtle population and nesting research in Lhaviyani atoll.
We are now based in Shaviyani, Noonu, Raa, Baa, Lhaviyani, North Malé, and Laamu. We have identified over 5500 individual sea turtles in the Maldives, supported the government's work to monitor turtle populations and classify the conservation status of turtles in the country for the first time, and supported the establishment of six Marine Protected Areas in Laamu atoll. We have also successfully rehabilitated and released 99 turtles and recovered over 10 tonnes of ghost gear from the Indian Ocean. We have provided internships for 19 Maldivian individuals; and we also conduct educational programmes for communities and schools; and provide awareness sessions for visiting tourists and volunteers.
Most recently, we piloted the Sea Turtle Guardian Programme for locals or tour operators in the Maldives, to prepare them to handle any turtle-related emergencies and learn how to guide snorkels and dives following sea turtle best practices and collecting data.
2. What makes the Maldives unique, in terms of the turtle population?
Maldivian coral reef habitats provide resting and foraging grounds for the globally critically endangered hawksbill. This is why hawksbill sea turtles can be seen nationwide, although the current population of hawksbills are predominantly juveniles as they were historically hunted for their shell.
Our seagrass meadows are also a vital food source for the endangered green sea turtle, which are primarily vegetarian as adults and are also an important recruitment site for juveniles.
Furthermore, despite being geographically dispersed and small, our sandy white beaches make for viable nesting sites, especially for the green sea turtle.
There are still many questions about the turtles in the Maldives, such as how they are related to sea turtles in other parts of the Indian Ocean, which makes them very interesting to study and open for discoveries.
3. What is the most sustainable way in which a visitor can have an encounter with a turtle?
Tourists can help sustain sea turtle populations by selecting resorts that practise no interference policy with sea turtles, and ensuring that sea turtles - whether hatchlings on the beach or wild turtles - are not harassed, injured, or disturbed in any way. By following best practices of maintaining a 1.5m distance from the turtle at all times, learning about sea turtles, and ensuring that their behaviour is not disturbed by snorkelers or divers in the water, you can provide a safe environment for sea turtles.
4. What are examples of steps that a visitor or a turtle enthusiast can take to contribute to the conservation of these beautiful creatures in the Maldives?
If you are a turtle enthusiast, Maldives is your paradise! Not only can you spot sea turtles underwater- if you’re lucky enough, you may even see a mama turtle nesting, or hatchlings making their first splash! And to protect these beautiful creatures, the best thing you can do is treat them with respect.
Follow ORP’s Sea Turtle Code of conduct - maintain a distance of 2m from the turtles while diving, do not touch or chase them - be it on land or water, and don’t use bright lights around nesting sea turtles and hatchlings. Also, do not hold hatchlings back in buckets or containers- this will cause them to waste their precious energy reserves.You can also retrieve any ghost gear you spot during your dives, you would be saving a turtle or another marine creature from entanglement.
Another way that you can contribute to sea turtle conservation is by helping us with sea turtle research. All you will need is a camera. Read more here.
5. What are some of the dangers that turtles are facing in the Maldives and globally?
The main threats that sea turtles are facing are human-induced (anthropogenic) threats. Global warming can cause the temperature of nesting beaches to rise, which in turn will affect the sex ration of sea turtle eggs in the nest. Sea turtles have temperature-dependent sex determination, with higher temperatures contributing to an increase in female sea turtles. Longer term, this imbalance can be detrimental to sea turtle reproduction.
Sea turtles are also hunted for their shells, meat, and eggs. This had been one of the factors for sea turtle population decline from the 1970s to the present day in the Maldives.
Furthermore, sea turtles may get entangled or injured due to abandoned, discarded or lost fishing gear (ghost nets) in the ocean. Entangled turtles will either drown if they are unable to come up for air, or float along for days unless rescued, as the nets make it impossible for them to dive for food.
An additional threat to sea turtles is the destruction of their marine and nesting habitats - coastal development and island reclamation can take away vital habitats that sea turtles need to reproduce, forage, or nest.
6. What are your future plans for turtle conservation in the Maldives? And upcoming milestones?
- Raising further awareness about the threats a sea turtles face
- Building local capacity for the investigation as well as protection of the turtle population (through workshops as well as internships)
- Supporting the development of a sea turtle management plan, including finding ways to enforce protection (in cooperation with respective governmental agencies)
- Increasing capacity for sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation
- Improving data collection across the country
- Milestones: upcoming rehabilitation centres opening in Raa and Noonu Atoll, publications on population trends as well as four years nest monitoring summary.
- Establishment of the Sea Turtle Guardian Program in the Maldives - which is an extensive training program for building capacity and knowledge within the local community on sea turtle conservation.
7. How can locals help?
ORP in Maldives is registered and run by Maldivian staff, and we also provide internship opportunities at the Marine Turtle Rescue Centre every 3 months for locals passionate about sea turtle conservation. We also have Maldivian interns in Laamu Atoll and Noonu Atoll.
Every snorkeller or diver with an underwater camera can contribute to our wild turtle population research! We collect data by photographing both sides of the sea turtle’s face, which can be used for identification. Every sea turtle can be identified by their unique facial patterns, and by photographing it, research can be conducted without being invasive! Photographs of the sea turtle’s face, with the dive/snorkel site name and location, can be sent to [email protected]
Anyone encountering an entangled or injured turtle can also report to ORP’s 24/7 Sea Turtle Emergency Hotline 9552205 for help and support. Injured turtles can be transferred to our rescue and rehabilitation facilities with support from our partners.
If you’re interested in learning more about sea turtles through education or training, you can also reach out to ORP to set up a training or presentation session!
By sharing their work, and working to protect sea turtles with minimal interference to their natural behaviour, you can contribute to ORP’s work!
8. Who is your favourite turtle in the Maldives? (If you have any)
It is very difficult to decide on a favourite turtle in the Maldives! There are so many individuals that I see regularly in Kuredu lagoon, Caves and Express, that I can recognise immediately, and I'm fond of all of them. The more time I spend observing their behaviour the clearer it is that each turtle has their own character. One turtle that always makes my day is Captain Barbossa, who we regularly see resting on a pinnacle at Kuredu Express, a dive site in Lhaviyani. The Captain is used to seeing divers drifting past and he/she turns his head up and lazily watches us out of one eye, he looks so judgemental, it's very cute. We get the divers to salute to him, which they find fun.
I first photographed Captain Barbossa in January 2021 and since then we have had 34 recorded sightings of him/her, mostly from his favourite perch on the pinnacle. He is growing quite quickly and he no longer fits as snuggly as he used to, so now his back flippers are left dangling over the edge, it's adorable! - Emily Mundy, Lhaviyani Sea Turtle Biologist
9. What was your most memorable encounter with a turtle?
My most memorable turtle encounter was on World Sea Turtle Day earlier this year, during a dive to Kuredu Caves we saw 2 mating green sea turtles, they did not seem disturbed by our group, and we made sure not to approach them, we were at least 8m away at all times. The turtles stayed for over half an hour, and another male was circling the two, biting the male's tail, and he even tried to knock them over! Anytime he was close to their heads the female snapped at him and chased him off! I never dreamed I would ever see this natural behaviour in real life, underwater during a dive, I was on cloud nine for a week! - Emily Mundy, Lhaviyani atoll
10. Any highlights from your work with the community from previous events and activities?
“One of the biggest highlights from my work with the community would be the awareness sessions carried out with children. They are always so eager to learn more and it’s refreshing to see such passion and dedication from young minds!” - Risha Ali Rasheed, ORP’s Volunteer, Education & Outreach Officer
11. What was the reception like during the Vaavoshi Festival?
All 8 islands’ festivities went ahead with such support from school and parents, and even in Feydhoo (where it was raining) we held the Vaavoshi Parade calling to protect sea turtles and marine habitats. The students from all locations were incredibly engaged, curious, and learning with us and all our participating environmental organisations. We hope that the students are now aware of the opportunities for conservation in the country and will work towards protecting their island’s homes- and the life surrounding it.