When Moussa and Assaf left the ER permanently recently, there were no insurance forms to sign, no bills to review and no way they could ever repay those who treated them. But if the two sea turtles could talk, they would have had a whale of thanks to give the staff at the Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Center, whose team nursed them back to health from serious injury, allowing them to slip back into the Mediterranean along with five of their mates in a jubilant ceremony at the Nahal Alexander Nature Reserve one recent sunny morning.
Surrounded by cheering schoolchildren and watched carefully by fishermen Moussa Jurban, who'd found the turtle tangled in one of his nets off his village of Jisr e-Zarka, near Atlit, Moussa slipped back into the water just ahead of Assaf, saved via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by center director Yaniv Levy - two more success stories for Levy and his team, who have become the local sea turtles' best friends.
Whether it's assisting in providing a safe place for the sometimes dicey laying of turtle eggs, ensuring hatchlings emerge safely and make it to the sea, taking care of injured sea turtles like Moussa and Assaf or working to increase the population of green sea turtles, which are facing extinction, Levy and his small staff, joined by a group of highly motivated volunteers, have done yeoman's work at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Center in caring for and increasing the country's sea turtle population, thereby improving its beaches and ecology.
For Levy and his staff, based in a warren of tiny rooms inside the Mevo'ot Yam Maritime School at Michmoret, every patient is special, which is why they were feeling particularly proud as they watched their patients slowly amble down a sand gangway cordoned off for the event. The ceremony marked the center's 10th anniversary, and a cornerstone was laid for a much-needed bigger facility.
"Great, great, great," is how Levy describes the turtles' release. "It's a great relief that they're off, that I have some empty tanks now I can use for more turtles we can help. That we finished the job with these guys, that they're healthy and strong and back in the sea."
THE SEA turtles released that day and dozens of others receiving loving care might also want to thank a certain lecturer at the Maritime College for their good fortune. It seems that Levy was particularly bored by one of the lectures one day in March 1999, and "a friend told me there was a dead turtle on the beach." The sea turtle was barely alive when Levy found him. "I lifted him up and saw that he was still moving his flippers," he recalls. "I took him back to where I was working, inside the boarding school, where there was a section for marine agriculture."
As a kid, Levy was always "looking at animals, not just turtles... snakes, lizards, octopuses, whatever," so it seemed perfectly natural to him to throw the turtle into the back of a friend's car and drive it up to Shavei Zion, near Nahariya, where a veterinarian acquaintance, Shlomi Ariel, and he began surgery "that took about eight hours or something like that. It was very new for both of us, surgery on sea turtles." Fortunately, Levy had spent time working with renowned sea turtle expert Dr. Jeanne Mortimer in the Seychelles in previous years, who had taught him a lot about the creatures after she took a ride on a boat Levy was working on.
With the help of a vet in California they kept on the phone, they continued with the operation. When Ariel suggested that what they were doing might be against the law because the turtle was an endangered species, "I didn't like that idea," says Levy with typical forcefulness, "because I said that after I'd been two years at sea I had a law that if you found something at sea, it's yours. That's the law of the sea."
The pair contacted INPA, which sent over a ranger who "was satisfied that we had already done his work." Then INPA regional ecologist Ze'ev Kuller explained to Levy that now he would have to find a place to rehabilitate the turtle, and he had no such facility. "So I explained to him that this was my turtle, and I was going to take care of him and I was going to release him back to the wild, and he didn't have to worry about anything."
Levy didn't sleep that night, staying close to the turtle he'd named Mazal to make sure everything was okay after surgery. Kuller came around the next day and after hearing about Levy's experience with Mortimer, asked if he would be willing to take care of such injured turtles on a more regular basis "And I said: 'Of course, I'd love that. That's a great thing to do, that's my joy, I would be more than happy to do that,'" recalls Levy. And so the Israel Sea Turtle Rescue Center was born.
"As soon as I met him, I knew that the project was in good hands," says Kuller, who calls Levy "a true professional with lots of love and care and knowledge. And when I retired in 2004, I passed all this work on the turtles that we were doing on to him, and since then he's been handling it."
LESS THAN a week passed after Mazal was found, and another turtle came in, from the Gaza Strip, with a hook in its esophagus. Nitzan - from the Nitzanim Beach area - got the same treatment as Mazal, "and both of us began to realize that we were talking about something a bit bigger than just helping out two turtles. We both realized we could do something that would be a bit more beneficial and take many more turtles in the future... maybe we should establish a little rescue center... We decided to be pioneers - we realized that there was no other choice," explains Levy.
Figuring on about four turtles a year - a figure which proved way too small - they contacted the Mevo'ot Yam Maritime School and asked if they could have a few small rooms to open the center, because they already had a few tanks to keep turtles in. The manager had worked as a ranger for the INPA - which until then had exclusively looked after such matters, and still plays a vital role in handling sea turtle hatchings and protection - and gave his okay.
"That first year, when we thought we were going to have four, we had 11," says Levy matter-of-factly. In his tiny quarters, which haven't grown by much in 10 years, he "enlisted" volunteers ("I told them they had no other choice but to come") and swiped fiberglass swimming pools from families whose kids had outgrown them, in which he kept the turtles, which kept coming. "There was no budget, no staff, no nothing. You can literally say that I started from zero. People told me that I was crazy, but that's still the case today, so nothing has changed, it's only gotten worse now."
Slowly, with the help of the INPA, Levy and his staff built up awareness in the public. "Today, for example, if there's a dead turtle on the beach in Michmoret, I get 10 to 20 phone calls reporting that turtle. Ten years ago, nobody would have known that it was there, or cared that there was a dead turtle on the beach," he says. And there have been many, about 14.2 per month in the past two years, mostly due to increased fishing, according to INPA figures. In Gaza, the turtles are still hunted, and around the world, their eggs are considered an aphrodisiac. Indeed, Levy has a poster up in his office in Spanish, featuring a beautiful woman saying: "My man doesn't need to eat turtle eggs."
Maintaining the sea turtle population, which faces extinction, particularly the green turtles, is not just in their interest, as Kuller explained at the release ceremony. "These species just aren't any species - they give us an indication of how our seas are doing, what condition our beaches are in."
"The sea turtles are a flagship species for saving the Mediterranean coast, and we have a lot of problems with pollution and building" on the beaches, says Dr. Noam Leader, chief ecologist for INPA. "Basically there's not too much shore that is left natural, and as we can see here today, there are a lot of sea turtles in the Mediterranean, and a lot of them depend on the relative condition of Israel as a nature protecting state in the area. So what we are trying to do is first of all, save the injured ones... but also to rehabilitate the green turtle population, which has been in decline.
"I sometimes come to the center just to see a turtle and make my day a little better. I think once you've seen a sea turtle, your life changes afterward - it's a magnificent animal."
To those who've stumbled upon the turtles or helped nurse them back to health, that's definitely the case. For Levy and his team, it was particularly important to alert the fishermen of Jisr e-Zarka to the importance of preserving the turtles, and indeed, three of those released at the event had been caught by the fishermen.
As fisherman Jurban watched Moussa make his way back into the water, after the sea turtle been brought to the relaunching site in a green "tzavbulance," based on the word tzav, Hebrew for turtle, he wished him "only blessings, that he live a long life and to tell all the other fishermen: If you happen to catch Moussa, let him go." He'd sent frenzied messages to Levy the morning of Yom Kippur after catching Moussa in one of his nets, perhaps because he recalled a time 20 years ago "when I was not so nice to a turtle. Back then, we would have eaten him."
Jurban, who had one of the two small green turtles he caught and turned over to Levy for rehabilitation, explains that "now I call him and we are in touch with each other... Today I say good-bye to them. I'm happy to have helped and will try to help any turtles that come my way."
NOT EVERYONE, however, is so kind to the sea turtles, as Levy noted when reviewing some of the more difficult cases his team has handled. Since its inception in 1999, 259 turtles have been taken in by the center, and 140 returned to the sea. But the dangers posed by those who still hunt the sea turtles, pollution and other threats are still bringing in sea turtles for treatment, and the center's staff gets attached to each one.
"Each animal has his or her own personality," explains Levy. "For example, we had a turtle once named Liran, who had a back injury - 40 percent of his shell was broken, and it was very itchy. And he really liked when we scrubbed him. He would get mad at us if we didn't scratch his back. We had to come with the brush, dip the water, and as soon as he saw the brush he would immediately go underneath it, and we would start to scrub his back, his shell, and you could see that he was enjoying himself for a second... he didn't want to miss a moment of scrubbing. He really liked the people to come look at him... he would throw water with his flipper at the audience again and again - everyone would get wet from this guy."
But while they sometimes provide laughs, the center's patients often provide a scare, as with Assaf - a young sea turtle named after the man who found him on a Herzliya beach "completely exhausted," Levy recalls. A ranger was alerted to bring him to the center, but "when I got the turtle here, he was already dead. There were no signs of life, nothing... I immediately started resuscitation, using a special tube that I inserted into his trachea and I blew into. I tried giving him air, pulses for the heart and adrenalin. We were working on that turtle for about two hours before we saw the first signs of real life."
Antibiotics and close care led to Assaf gaining six kilos in two months, the equivalent of 12 kilos for a human, leading up to his release at the May 5 ceremony.
Buoya was also let go, after having been initially found near the Habonim nature reserve, crawling on the beach in circles. He'd been shot in the head with 10 pellets by hunters, and "we weren't sure how he'd be able to recover; with head injuries, it's always hard to tell," says Levy.
Buoya's injury initially had him not eating, so he was force-fed for several months of what Levy calls "very intensive care," When the turtle recovered, Levy and his team worked at correcting another serious problem: Buoya could not submerge. To fix this buoyancy problem, "we did what we did with a few turtles in the past - attached screws on his back to which we attached weights in the right amount and position. Within about two weeks with the weights, he recovered. I have no idea, and none of the vets can explain it, but it is a fact."
NOT ALL the turtles are so lucky. Hofesh ("vacation"), so named because a ranger found him on his day off, will never go free because he is missing both flippers on the left side, "so he will never be able to challenge the currents at sea," explains Levy. "So this is a rehabber who will be stuck here for the rest of his life."
But don't fret for Hofesh - he's going to become a part of the green turtle breeding stock, the equivalent of a prized bull being put out to stud.
Levy and surgeon Zahi Aizenberg sometimes fashion their own tools to deal with the fishermen's hooks they must remove from the sea turtles. Indeed, the surgery itself is very different from operating on a human, Aizenberg says. "There are very big differences between mammals and turtles, reptiles, the way to anesthetize them, drugs they can take, the way to suture them," he explains, checking on a new arrival who suffered a severe head injury after being hit by a boat, crushing its skull and damaging its eyes. "We're not sure he can see now, and we're just waiting to see if he'll make it or not."
In one case, Levy and his team turned to acupuncturist Shlomit Irron to help Haya, a sea turtle who failed to react to after three or four months of Western medication. "She was in really bad condition, so we had no choice but to turn to something that we don't know, that we don't usually work with," says Levy in a YouTube video of the operation. Comparing the anatomy of humans and turtles, they mapped out a plan of operation, with Irron using a wider needle than she uses on her human patients "because it's harder to insert it through the skin. There's a certain point that affects the whole body, it has a strengthening effect. We found the point and we injected vitamin B-12," thus helping Haya's recovery.
"I work six days a week with humans," Irron says, "and I hear their pains and problems all week, and I met Yaniv and I decided to work here - someplace quiet... although there are problems here too, with turtles. But it's different - I love working with animals."
As befitting their speed of movement, rehabilitation of turtles can be a slow process, with uncertain results. "We can only know after a few months most times; in human beings, you can know a day later whether you've succeeded or not, while in turtles you only know after a few months," says Aizenberg. "We can't save all of them, but when we save some of them and succeed and a few months or a year or two later they go back to the sea, this is a good feeling. I'm just trying to help them, nothing more."
With the cornerstone for a new center laid, which he hopes will be built within a few years, Levy's project is taking off, though he says budgets are still hard to come by. As much as he's learned about the turtles, however, he's also learned something about himself.
"In the beginning it was very hard, and I used to cry about every turtle lost. But after having taken care of some 300 you get used to death. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that you know how to appreciate life much better as a human. I do have a few difficulties in my life, but every time I'm feeling bad, I look at myself and see that I have four limbs, two eyes - I'm perfect. I have all my organs with me, I can walk, talk, breathe, smile - that's a great gift that not everybody can enjoy, and this is something I can tell you that I learned from these animals, seeing death and trying to help, and not always succeeding."
THOSE SUCCESSES, like the release of the seven on this day, are largely due to the hard work of the volunteers working at the center. Among them were members of Young Judaea's Year Course program like Miriam Aczel of Brookline, Massachusetts, and Gianna Fischer of West Orange, New Jersey. Whether cutting up fish to feed the small turtles, or even extracting DNA from dead turtle embryos, they took pleasure in even the yuckiest of tasks, while reflecting on the seven who'd been released.
"It's sad, it's heart-wrenching; we've been working with them for three months," says Fisher. "It's like saying good-bye to one of the family," says Aczel, who adds that their work "shows how people are willing to work really hard for animals. The animal doesn't really respond to it so much, it's not like you're getting anything back, it's pure selflessness."
Dotan Ohayon, 31, in charge of the work schedule and the volunteers, explains such volunteering "creates a connection between nature and mankind, which is what I get up for each morning." While a turtle can't wag its tail, and "doesn't give you a hug... it's something you feel in your soul. This is an animal that's really suffering and in danger, and these are the things that touch me, and why I'm here. It's a small modest place that does great things, but the place is based on the volunteers. If we didn't have them, we couldn't function. Their good-heartedness and their desire to come take care of the turtles every day is what makes the place so special."
As the excitement of the earlier release gives way to routine, Ohayon reflects on the center's purpose and his own in being there. Turtles, he says, "are part of our world, part of what was created here. And man's job is not to kill or make war, but to protect those creatures that need our protection more than any other creature. People also need help sometimes, but these creatures need our help and awareness, because if we don't do this, then we will have a world without them, and I don't think anyone wants such a colorless gray world."
Despite the center's heroic efforts to protect and propagate the sea turtles, the challenges still remain, explains Levy. "The direct problem is intensive fishery and a lot of plastic floating in the water. The indirect problem is the beach problem - artificial lights scare turtles, and hatchlings follow the lights and don't make it into the sea. Four-by-four vehicles smash nests, and the use of beaches for recreation - building restaurants or banquet halls on them - is also a problem.
"I've learned that we are a very ugly species that makes do with looking out for ourselves, and using plastics like there's no tomorrow. Because we live in a world that is dying because of us, because it's more convenient for us to use a plastic cup than to wash it after drinking, which is ugly laziness. We are all very lazy people, even me, and that's the main problem. We have to stop the horrible damage we are doing to the earth, because everybody gets hurt, and in the end, we will get hurt as well."
Back at his desk, Levy, while pleased with the celebrations, says, "the biggest challenge is to make a proper rescue center in the place where we placed the cornerstone. That's the biggest goal."
Reflecting on the 10 years since that day he discovered Mazal, he says, "We proved that it's needed, from that first turtle to today; I think we've made nice progress, and I'm quite happy about that."
But no one is more moved by the day's events than Moussa Jurban, watching his namesake hit the waves. "He's returned to nature. He's gone back to his life. At first, when they took him, I didn't know what they were going to be able to do for him. But now I see them helping him back out to sea, so congratulations to the center and the INPA. I love the sea and the living things in it."