Salvaging a Dead Sea Turtle at Changi Beach

[Salvaging a carcass is typically a disheartening affair, as we prefer to see our biodiversity alive. But it is always good to have some hope that the specimen we pick up would be able to contribute to science or allow others to learn more about our biodiversity. Here, Sankar A, our Toddycats SG50 intern, recounts his experience on a carcass salvage operation. – Marcus Chua]

I was just about to go home from work on 14 May 2015, when I saw a message on my phone from Marcus to the Toddycats, “Anyone on campus would like to head down with me for a carcass salvage?” Intrigued, I replied that I was free and could help out. 20 minutes later, I was climbing into a van heading towards Changi. I expected the carcass to be a roadkill, so it was a bit of a shock when Marcus told me that it was actually a Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas). It was thought to have been hit by the propeller of a boat and had been split across its shell. NParks had kindly brought the carcass ashore and had kept it aside for the Museum to collect it.

20150514 Green turtle 1_MC

The large sea turtle had been split across the carapace.

We drove over to Changi Beach Carpark 6, stopping only to pick up the taxidermists. We met Ruth Tan, NParks manager of coastal parks, who facilitated the salvage process and showed us where the carcass was held. After donning the necessary PPE (vinyl gloves and N95 mask), we carried the carcass over to a designated area, where the taxidermists could work. Despite the masks, the smell was pretty bad. The first thing we did was to take measurements and “crime scene” photos for record purposes. The turtle was large, with a carapace length of about 0.8 m. Marcus also ascertained that the turtle was a female, based on the short tail length. We took tissue samples from the carcass for cryogenic preservation. Since I had never taken a tissue sample before, Marcus showed me a couple of examples before allowing me to do one.

Is the haze back? Nope, just observing safety reguations!

Is the haze back? Nope, just wearing the appropriate PPE!

As the taxidermists expertly prepared the carcass, structures of the turtle’s skeleton became apparent. I saw how the carapace (upper section of the shell) of the turtle was essentially formed out of a modified backbone and ribs like the specimen in the image below.

The turtle's carapace is composed of a modified spine and ribcage

This specimen is a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) at the Museum of Science in Boston. Image by Daderot.

Because the boat’s propeller had split the shell in two, we were given a rare look into the cross-section of a Sea Turtle. It was genuinely a surreal experience. We were all thoroughly impressed by the speed and professionalism that the taxidermists exhibited.

20150514 Green turtle 2_MC

Measuring the Sea Turtle’s carcass.

As the turtle was being deconstructed before my eyes, it occurred to me that this was the first wild Sea Turtle that I had ever seen. It was a pity that my first encounter with this rare creature had to be under such circumstances.  While there is an undeniable scientific and educational value of this specimen, it cannot possibly compare to the ecological value of such a large breeding female swimming in open waters.

Despite being internationally endangered, the fact that these turtles can be found in our waters never ceases to amaze me. Yet, they continue to be threatened by human activity, which this specimen serves as a grim reminder of. Nevertheless, it shows that we as humans have an important role to play in the conservation of such marine biodiversity.

One comment

  1. What a heart-wrenching find! I’m so glad you wrote this post, and people should really take better care of the extensive wildlife that Southeast Asia has to offer! Thanks for sharing!

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