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Animal rescue: Protecting our marine treasures with Exploris Aquarium

By Maureen Coleman

When a young loggerhead turtle was discovered off the Donegal coast this week after being swept hundreds of miles off-course, it was handed over to the Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry for safekeeping and rehabilitation.

Although 'Columba - as it came to be called - was the first of its species to be rescued by Exploris in 20 years, there had been a spate of loggerhead turtle recoveries between 1990 and 1995, which provided vital experience for the staff.

But, in spite of round-the-clock care and attempts to revive the young reptile, sadly Columba didn't pull through. Since 1989, the aquarium has rescued an incredible total of 187 common seals, 253 grey seals and 10 loggerheads - including Columba. Loggerhead turtles are found in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea, but are unable to survive winter sea temperatures here.

Tania Singleton, at Exploris, believes Columba may have been travelling along the Gulfstream from the Caribbean when it was swept off course and into waters too cold for survival.

The turtle was found in water of only eight degrees and the Exploris team tried to warm it up from its hypothermic state.

Staff members took it in turns to stay in the tank with the reptile, to help keep its head above water.

There were a few spells of activity, but unfortunately Columba passed away overnight.

The loggerhead turtle is just the latest marine creature to be rescued and cared for by Exploris.

Exploris began life in 1987 as the Northern Ireland Aquarium, and was opened by Ards Borough Council to enable the public to view the diverse marine life that exists around these islands.

Due to its popularity with both visitors and education groups, the aquarium was extended and reopened by Prince Charles in 1994 as Exploris.

Although the aquarium has been involved in the rehabilitation of seals since 1989, the new purpose-built Seal Sanctuary only opened in 2000. And while it's mainly sick, injured, or orphaned, seals which are rescued, nursed back to health and released back into the wild, Exploris has also provided care for a variety of marine creatures, including loggerhead turtles, leatherback turtles and lobsters.

Here are just some of the fabulous stories of aquatic rescues by Exploris.

Frankie

On New Year's Eve 2006, a young grey seal, which had swam upstream in Lough Foyle, made its way onto the runway at City of Derry airport. The seal was chased away and disappeared, only to reappear the following day, as a flight was about to take off. Staff at the airport contacted Exploris and a rescue team was dispatched to bring the underweight seal to Portaferry, where it was looked after by staff.

Christened "Frankie", it had a some injuries to his face, caused by high winds and rough seas, and was also suffering from a slight respiratory infection.

But, after some tender loving care, it was released back into the wild in March 2007.

Spud

Each year, Exploris adopts a theme which it then uses to name the seals that it rescues. In 2011, the rescued seals were named after vegetables, hence Spud.

The young grey seal had come upstream in January of that year, made his way inland and wandered into a shed at the back of a property in Sion Mills, Co Tyrone.

A member of staff from Exploris was sent to Sion Mills to rescue Spud and the seal was released two months later.

Wasabi

Named after the spice, Wasabi the seal was rescued after being sucked into the intake pipes at Kilroot Power Station in October 2012.

It had come up Belfast Lough and found itself trapped in the pipes. It had not been spotted by staff at Kilroot and could have been crushed by machinery.

Wasabi was brought to Exploris for rehabilitation and released in December 2012.

Oak

The young seal was found on the Copeland Islands, off the north Down coast, in October last year.

Named Oak, in keeping with the aquarium's 2014 theme of trees, the pup was just two weeks old and was suffering from horrific propeller injuries to the neck when it was discovered.

Staff from Exploris took a boat over to the islands and rescued Oak.

Following treatment with antibiotics, it was released back into the wild last month.

May

In 1994, May hit the headlines after he was introduced to Prince Charles during the official opening of the newly named Exploris.

Initially, staff thought May was female, but later discovered "she" was, in fact, a he.

During the visit, Prince Charles remarked that May smelt "rather fishy". The seal was released later that year.

Timmy

In January 1990, Timmy, the loggerhead turtle, was washed up in Brandon Bay in Co Kerry.

It was rescued by a local fisherman and airlifted by Army helicopter to Portaferry.

Timmy was the first turtle to be rehabilitated at the aquarium and, as a result, received a lot of Press attention.

Timmy, who was unjured, was later released back into the wild, off Madeira.

Myrtle/Teddy

Rescued in the same month as Timmy, this loggerhead was too young to identify its gender, so staff gave it two names.

It was rescued at Achill Island, off Co Clare, and taken to Westport by two local girls.

The girls then accompanied the turtle to Dublin by train, where it was met by staff from Exploris.

Myrtle/Teddy was rehabilitated at Exploris and released off Madeira, in the north Atlantic, together with Timmy.

Maeve

Rescued in Galway Bay in March 1990, Maeve, the loggerhead, was named in honour of the ancient Queen of Connaught (Medb).

When discovered, it had lot of injuries and buoyancy problems, but in spite of attempts to save it, it died.

Its shell is still on display at Exploris.

Tina

In March 1990, Tina was rescued off the Aran Islands by a 70-year-old islander.

The director of the island arranged for the turtle to be taken to Carnmore Airport and it was then accompanied by police escort to the city of Galway.

There, it was transported to Dublin by train to be met by Exploris staff.

Tina was released back into the wild in May 1990.

Paddy

This loggerhead turtle turned up at Owenahincha, Co Cork on March 16, the same year.

It was looked after by Sherkin Island Marine Station and then brought to Portaferry on St Patrick's Day.

Paddy was released off the Azores in May.

Liam

On October 31, 1990, Liam the loggerhead was rescued in Connemara and taken to Galway University.

It was then transferred to Carna Marine Laboratory, with only three of its flippers intact.

Liam was looked after at Exploris and released off Madeira in January 1991.

On February 17, a kayaker spotted a leatherback turtle off the Co Down coast. A few days later the reptile washed up dead in Portaferry.

A post-mortem examination was carried out, which found that the turtle had lots of old wounds, including a partially healed skull fracture and an injury across the right eye which had led to a brain infection and meningitis. The leatherback also had hypothermia.

A plastic bag was found among its stomach contents, as leatherbacks often mistake these for jellyfish.

A white lobster was discovered in a lobster pot in Carnlough in 2011.

The man who found the creature knew immediately it was a rare species, as only one in 1,000 found are white lobsters.

He brought the lobster to Exploris, where it now lives in a special tank.

Seal pups and safety ...

Unlike whales and dolphins, seals are well adapted for periods on land and actively come ashore for rest, mating, pupping and nursing. At certain times of the year, it is perfectly normal for seal pups to be alone on the shore.

What to do if you discover a seal pup:

Observe from a distance. Seal pups are often unafraid of people and will not try to move into the water if approached. The seal's mother, however, will not return to retrieve or feed her pup if humans are nearby. Human disturbance can result in the mother abandoning her pup. Keep your distance and keep dogs away from it

Do not attempt to touch. Seals are wild animals and are capable of inflicting a painful bite that can result in a bacterial infection known as "seal finger". Some diseases seals have can be transmitted to humans - seal pox, brucella and salmonella

Do not attempt to feed.

Feeding a seal pup is not advisable as, in the wild, it survives on a specific diet, which is difficult for the untrained to replicate

Do not move into the water. Never move a seal pup into the sea - it is there for a good reason. Its mother may have left it there and will return later. It may also, for example, be a young grey seal pup which are born covered in a white fur that is easily waterlogged. They stay ashore for the first few weeks of life until the white coat is shed. It may also be a newly-weaned pup resting

If in doubt, contact Exploris Aquarium, The Rope Walk, Castle Street, Portaferry, tel: 028 4272 8062, or email info@exploris.org.uk

Tragedy on the Thames

In one of the best-known animal strandings of recent years, a 28ft (9.5m) humpback whale was found dead in the River Thames near the Dartford Bridge in September 2009.

Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and members of British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) received reports that a whale had been spotted in the Thames, but no further sightings were made until the animal was found dead two days later and subsequently recovered by a Port of London Authority (PLA) patrol boat.

Initial examination suggests the humpback, the first to have been found in the Thames, may have died of starvation. Scientists from the Zoological Society, which manages the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme, said the beaching of the humpback whale was an "incredibly unusual event''.

The last humpback to be found stranded in Britain was at Port Talbot in Wales in 2007.

The ZSL team, who were also involved in the mass dolphin stranding in Cornwall in 2008, carried out a post-mortem examination. Programme manager Rob Deaville said: "Preliminary results from the post-mortem indicate that it may have died as a result of starvation, but further tests may provide additional information about what happened."

Further reading

Save Exploris: Twitter users snap as campaign to save Northern Ireland's only aquarium goes global

Off-course turtle 'Columba' loses fight for life

Little orphaned seal pup on road to recovery at Exploris Aquarium after lough rescue

Rescued otter's survival battle: Struggling animal found on Greyabbey road has huge fight on its hands, says vet  

Battle to save Exploris Aquarium almost over as funding deal is agreed by councils 

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