Sea turtles are under threat from trawlers in the Adriatic. A center offers them a sanctuary

MARINA DI RAVENNA, Italy (AP) — On a crisp morning off the coast of Marina di Ravenna, the Adriatic Sea glistens under the sun as marine biologist Linda Albonetti stands in a gently bobbing boat. Reaching into a plastic tub, she hefts out a sizeable loggerhead turtle and eases it over the side.

The rehabilitated turtle — dubbed “Vulcano” — flaps her flippers energetically as she enters the azure waters and swims to freedom.

The release location is an unlikely haven: an area of methane extraction platforms symbolizing industrial intrusion in the turtles' habitat. But since fishing is prohibited in the area, it's a safe place to release turtles after they are treated at the Experimental Center for the Protection of Habitats (CESTHA). The center works to rescue and care for animals injured by trawlers and says its work has benefited more than 300 sea turtles, nearly 700 seahorses, more than 100 sharks and hundreds of thousands of cuttlefish in the past decade.

Loggerheads are found in seas and oceans around the world. In the Adriatic, they are concentrated in the north, a critical feeding ground that overlaps with trawling nets that can trap them underwater. Most of the sea turtles brought to CESTHA arrive with lung problems, though some others have more severe injuries from boat propellers or fishing hooks, Albonetti said.

“Human beings have an impact on natural resources and can also have an impact on protecting them. We are all moved by this,” Albonetti, who sports a “Keep Me Wild” tattoo on her arm, said.

A day at CESTHA

CESTHA is headquartered in a converted fish market close to the Adriatic. It brims with tanks housing turtles under care, softly swishing their flippers against tank walls. In each tank, there's a small plastic cone that serves to protect the turtles from light as they sleep or nap.

Each patient gets a name: Vesuvio, Bobo, Chanel, Baby Freedom. They come from fishers who found them, children who adopt them, and sometimes from the center's staff for their obvious characteristics. “Kim Kardashian,” they say, got the name because she's vain and likes to be in the spotlight. A form attached to her tank reads: “Yes I'm extremely beautiful, enormously beautiful.”

When The Associated Press visited in early June, Albonetti and her colleagues were attending to Cenere, a turtle badly injured four years ago when her carapace was broken and her lung injured by a boat propeller. Cenere, CESTHA's longest-staying patient, has undergone more than 10 surgeries. The center team devised a 3D-printed shell cover for her broken back.

It's “a sort of bubble to prevent the wound from coming into contact with water,” center director Simone D’Acunto said. He called Cenere an example of technological development in the care available to sea turtles, which can be costly.

“Our center has a health protocol for each specimen which is quite expensive because all incoming animals are subjected to at least an X-ray and blood tests,” D'Acunto said.

Albonetti prepared meals for the animals from a detailed care plan hung on the wall. The animals get fed once a week, mimicking the way they would eat in the wild.

As a crab was dropped into one tank, the attentive Kim Kardashian moved quickly to snap it up, her powerful jaws making quick work of the creature.

Journey back to the wild

Cenere will remain under care for the next few months before getting additional care at Aquarium Cattolica, Italy's second-biggest public aquarium.

“Releasing her into the sea like all animals” treated at CESTHA is the goal, Albonetti said, though there's no definite timeline yet for when she'll be back in the Adriatic.

Other turtles don't stay so long before they're released. In recent years, CESTHA has outfitted two with GPS trackers to gather data to aid their conservation efforts.

The first such turtle to be tracked — Gaia Speed — traveled more than 4,000 kilometers (about 2,400 miles) in the following year, D'Acunto said.


Adebayo reported from Lagos, Nigeria.


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Taiwo Adebayo, Luca Bruno And Sara Lemlem, The Associated Press