Fighting for survival... 'Columba' the Caribbean turtle who took wrong turn to end up in Donegal
A young loggerhead turtle is battling for survival at Exploris Aquarium after being swept hundreds of miles off course and fetching up on the Donegal coast.
Staff at the Co Down aquarium are having to stay in the turtle's tank in relays, holding its weakened head out of the water in case it drowns.
The turtle - aged 12, and therefore too young to have its sex determined - was found on the beach at Glencolmcille by Grainne Rua as she walked her dog. She alerted the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, which rescued the young reptile, now called Columba, and brought it to Exploris on Sunday.
Loggerhead turtles are found in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, but can't survive winter sea temperatures here. Tania Singleton at Exploris believes Columba may have been travelling along the Gulf Stream from the Caribbean when it was swept off course and into waters that are far too cold for survival.
"Under 15 degrees, turtles go into a lethargy response. Under 10 degrees, they go into a cold response, where they will just float," Tania said.
"Sea temperatures off Donegal were about 8 degrees. Once they get below 10C they are just oblivious to what is going on."
Columba is the first loggerhead turtle to have been rescued by Exploris in 20 years, but there was a spate of nine turtle rescues between 1990 and 1995, which provided vital experience.
The staff have gradually increased the tank temperature in a bid to bring Columba back to full health.
"When we got up to 16 or 17C it was almost like a light switched on and it became alive. It was bobbing about for hours," Tania said.
Unfortunately, when Tania arrived yesterday morning the turtle's condition had deteriorated and it was submerged with its head underwater.
"I thought it was dead," Tania said.
"After about 10 minutes it took a breath. We're taking it in relays to try to keep its head supported and keep the nostrils out of the water.
"The turtle only breathes about once an hour, although they don't breathe a lot. There is little response from it at the minute. It must be exhausted and needs rest - we are doing all we can for it"
Over the years Exploris has saved more than 450 stranded seals and this winter took in 28. Just five seals remain in its care. Among those 28 were 'Fur' and 'Spruce', which were rescued from the Antrim Coast Road, where they had climbed to escape stormy weather.
Meanwhile, 'Oak', a young seal found on the Copeland Islands with a horrific propellor injury to the neck, has just been released back into the wild.
Loggerheads are the most common turtle in the Mediterranean, nesting on beaches from Greece and Turkey to Israel and Libya. However, many of their nesting beaches are under threat from tourism development. They are vulnerable to accidental capture in nets and long-lines of fisheries. They are widely distributed in coastal waters, mainly in subtropical and temperate regions, and travel large distances following warm currents like the Gulf Stream and California Current.