An independent, non-commercial site to collect and disseminate information on the natural history of Shetland

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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Shetland Sea Mammal Group



Marine Turtles in Shetland Waters

Five of the world's seven species of sea turtles have occurred in British waters and three of these have been recorded around the coast of Shetland.

Turtle populations worldwide are declining and it is important to protect those that come into British waters and to learn more about their movements at sea by recording sightings of each species. All sea turtles are fully protected in British waters, which means that turtles may not be deliberately killed, and live turtles may not be landed unless for the purposes of tending them for subsequent release. Dead turtles or shells may also not be possessed unless the animals died accidentally and should not be displayed for commercial purposes or sold.

If you are lucky enough to see a turtle, record its colour, shape and shell pattern, and compare them with the illustrations below. Details of any turtle sightings in Shetland waters may be e-mailed or sent to Scottish Natural Heritage, Stuart Buildings, Lerwick, Shetland (01950) 693345. Researchers of turtle biology sometimes attach a tag to a turtle's flipper when it is on its breeding beach, and if seen the details of the tag should also be noted. All information on turtles in Shetland waters is passed to the Natural History Museum who co-ordinate sightings of these reptiles throughout Britain.

Photos: Leathery Turtles at Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary in November 2000 and Skeld in 1973

What to do if you find a stranded or injured turtle

Occasionally, turtles may become entangled in fishing gear and may suffer shock, which can kill them. You can help by taking appropriate action: When turtles become entangled in fishing gear offshore, it will take patience and time to release them. It is best done at the surface of the water so that the effective weight is less. If the turtle is caught in a trawl or drift net, do not lift it out of the water on to the deck if it appears to be active and alert, as it may suffer respiratory collapse or cardiac arrest. Never tow a turtle to harbour if this can be avoided. Always ensure that all net and line has been removed from the turtle before releasing it.

Turtles have powerful flippers and care should be taken when handling them to avoid personal injury. If hopelessly fouled in a crab or lobster line, carry out the release on the edge of the shore, but not on dry land. Leathery Turtles can be very heavy and pulling them over land can cause lacerations.

Turtles found stranded on beaches are sometimes already dead, but may be injured. Look for wounds such as those made by boat propellers or sharks. Young turtles in particular may be exhausted, disorientated or shocked by low water temperatures such as those found around Shetland. If you find a turtle in this condition contact Scottish Natural Heritage (or English Nature if you are in England), who will be able to advise or arrange suitable rehabilitation.

Leathery Turtle    Dermochelys coriacea

There are nine Shetland records involving live animals:

1955   off Noss Head, 30th August
1956   c.60km NE of Muckle Flugga, September
1967   off Papa Stour, 28th August
1973   off Skeld, 4th October
1990   from a fishing boat, north of Fetlar, 20th October
1992   c.30km NNW of Muckle Flugga, early September
1992   off Balta, Unst, 5th October
1995   from the Faeroese fishing boat Lomúr, NW of Yell, at 60o56'N 1o26'W, 9th October
1999   off the southern end of Bressay, between the Ord and the Bard, 8th August
2000   Basta Voe, 11th November, caught in nets and taken to Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary, where it subsequently died

In addition, a turtle that was thought to be this species (and possibly the 1999 Bressay individual above) was seen in Bluemull Sound, between Yell and Unst, by the crew of the Fetlar ferry on the 8th September 1999. Shoreline carapaces (the turtle's shell) are also occasionally recorded. Martin Heubeck, who organises Shetland's beached bird surveys, recalls finding one at Sumburgh in the 1980s. In 1996 a carapace was found, on a beach just west of Punds Voe, Scalloway on the 12th October. The shell measured 110cm by 96cm. Another was found dead at Dale beach at Walls in January 2002. It was decomposed and has probably been there some time. It measured 2m from nose to tail, it was 2.5m across the flippers and it weighted approximately 4-5cwt.

Identification: Leathery Turtles are essentially blackish in colour, spotted with white, can grow up to 2m in length (almost 7 feet) and have obvious ridges running the length of the shell from the head to the tail. Leathery Turtles are the species most frequently seen in British waters, usually during the late summer. When seen swimming on the surface of the sea they have been likened to a floating Volkswagen Beetle car!

photo - the 1999 Leathery Turtle off Bressay - John Tulloch

Loggerhead Turtle    Caretta caretta

There is just one Shetland record:

1945  off the west side of Unst, June

Identification: Loggerhead Turtles are reddish-brown in colour, can grow up to 1.5m in length (about 4.5 feet) and have just a single, ill-defined ridge running along the centre of the shell from the head to the tail. Most records of this species are during the winter months. The majority of these are thought to probably originate from North and Central American coasts.

photo - Loggerhead Turtle at sea

Green Turtle    Chelonia mydas

There is just one Shetland record, involving tideline remains:

1956   fragments of carapace found on beach, Burra, 4th January

Identification: Green Turtles are greenish in colour and are one of the smallest of the marine turtles. They are very rare vagrants outside tropical or sub-tropical waters and there are only five British records in total, only one of which was alive.

photo - captive Green Turtle


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