Project Paola

This story was originally posted to the CTURTLE mailing list. We felt that it was a well-written and interesting tale that deserved a more lasting place on the Web. We present it here for your enjoyment

Copyright 1997 MEDASSET & "Anton Dohrn"

The story of "Paola" begins with an injured sea turtle caught in the nets of an Italian fishing boat, and carried to shore, her fate uncertain and her life hanging by a thread. Was it the cooking pot or just a plain brutal death that awaited her?

But fate, an often fickle force, that day still had some tricks to play. Enter the young daughter of an Italian restaurant owner, who having seen a TV programme about turtle conservation and the work of the Naples Institute for Zoological Research, and seeing the turtle, ran to beg her father to help her rescue it and take it to the Research Centre. Fate again smiled on the turtle and the mission in the dead of night was successful.

At the Centre, under the care of Dr. Flegra Bentivegna, the curator, the turtle was nursed back to health, an operation was performed to remove a fish hook embedded in her throat, and a number of other fish hooks were excreted from her digestive tract. In honour of the 15 year old girl, the turtle was nicknamed "Paola", and five months later was pronounced fit and well, and ready to be returned to her natural habitat, the sea.

One of the projects of the Research Centre, was the monitoring by satellite of sea turtle movements around the Mediterranean. Could "Paola" be used in the project? She was 87 cms long and weighed 50 kilos, so the transmitter would be no problem to her. Where could she be released from? MEDASSET, the Greek based Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles, suggested Kefalonia, an Island off the west coast of Greece where many sea turtles come to lay their eggs in the summer, offered to organise her release, and to provide the necessary oceanographic information for the area to enable her to be tracked. This would avoid the area off Italy where fishermen still use illegal drift nets, and turtles are still illegally kept for the pot.

Unfortunately, the only transmitter the Research Centre had malfunctioned during testing, so money had to be found, and the release delayed while a new transmitter was obtained from the US. Finally "Paola" was fitted with her burden, the 12cm protective case with its 15 cm aerial was attached to her back with glass fibre and silicone. Arrangements were made to track her for six to eight months using the satellite facilities of the US Government, National Organisation for Ocean and Atmosphere Administration, NOAA, and the location tracking services of Argos CLS processing centre in France.

Tickets were booked for "Paola", together with a TV crew from RAI TV, to take a ferry ride from Naples to Sami, Kefalonia. There she was to be released in the presence of dignitaries of the island and representatives in Greece of the Italian Government, as well as a large crowd of local inhabitants. While the RAI crew shot events on the surface, divers from the Greek underwater activities club took videos and photos from below the sea. "Paola" was given a royal send-off.
Paola and her satellite transmitter.

For the next few weeks "Paola" meandered her way south-east down the Peloponnese coast of Greece, we only knew where she was, what adventures she may be having or what she was doing was a matter for speculation. Then, disaster happened! Download from the satellite revealed that "Paola" had ceased transmitting on the 25th May, just off Cape Tenaro, at the end of the Marni Peninsula the middle one of the three promontories of the South Peloponnese coast. The minds of all involved went into overdrive. Had she again been caught by fishermen, had she been hit by the propeller of a boat, had there been freak weather conditions that broke the satellite link, had she met an amorous male turtle who during mating had damaged the transmitter aerial, had the transmitter broken down? No one but "Paola" knew. Had this very expensive project ended so quickly and so abruptly?

At MEDASSET in Athens, through all the speculation, things went into overdrive. Press releases were issued, the Hellenic Ministry of Merchant Marine alerted port authorities all over Greece as well as vessels sailing in Greek waters. Antenna TV broke the story on their news bulletin, and replayed the video of her release. "Where was Paola?". In the office of MEDASSET the phones started ringing.

Nineteen calls reported sightings of turtles within the previous 10 days, in the Peloponnese area alone, most alleged to have been killed by fishermen or hit by boats. Incredibly as it turned out, the first call received was from a man who informed us of a fisherman from Lavrio on a trip in the Aegean Sea, where, off the island of Kea, 190 Kms. from "Paola's" last known position a turtle with a transmitter had been caught in the nets and released. Too far away, was the thought, but nothing was taken for granted as all the reports were investigated, questions asked, leads followed. Was it the truth? After all, a full description of "Paola" had been widely circulated.

Meanwhile, "Paola" was becoming a celebrity, the newspapers, TV and radio carried update reports. She became the butt of comedians and satirical shows on TV, and in the theater, conservation was having a field day.

At last contact was made with the fisherman from Lavrio. "Yes" he said, "A turtle did get caught in my net as I was fishing in shallow water off Koundouros, Kea. I took it to the beach, cut my net to free it. It had a transmitter on its back, I thought it must be important, it was fit and healthy, and rushed down the beach back into the water." The description of the tags seemed to match, the size was right, but was it "Paola"? Although "Paola was only the third such turtle released in the Mediterranean, and the second in Greek waters, there was still an element of doubt. Was it "Gaeta", who had been released in Italy and who had ceased transmission some time previously?

We didn't have long to wait for our answer. The next download from the satellite revealed that "Paola" had resumed transmission, from precisely the place the fisherman released her. All of a sudden a throwaway comment by the fisherman fell into place. "There was a sheet of plastic entangled around the aerial, which I cleared away". It seems that the fates had again worked for "Paola", taking her, when in trouble, to the nets of a friendly and humane fisherman.

While "Paola" continues steadily eastward, broadcasting her signal of thanks, perhaps it's time to wonder. Is she maybe a descendant of the turtle sacred to Poseidon and Aphrodite. Do the ancient Gods still watch over her?

Kidz Korner

Turtle Happenings

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Last modified 99/06/05
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