A rooftop is hardly natural habitat for a sea turtle, which is why Marius Scholtz was confident that the tiny, turtle-shaped object he spotted lying motionless on the sun-soaked tiles of a building on South Africa’s Cape coast was nothing more than a plastic toy. Until it moved its head.

The temporary home of 'Roofus' the rescued sea turtle. Image © Marius Scholtz

It was late afternoon and Scholtz, the owner of a Cape Town-based communications technology company, was surveying a rooftop in Saint Francis Bay near Port Elizabeth in preparation for an antenna installation. Just as he was calculating a path for the cabling, something “turtle-ish” caught his eye. The tiny hatchling “barely mustered all its strength to lift its head just a few millimetres, but enough for me to see that it wasn't a toy and that it was still alive,” he told the team from Two Oceans Aquarium.

Scholtz quickly retrieved the definitely-not-a-toy turtle and fabricated a makeshift home for it using a plastic ice-cream container into which he scooped some seawater from the nearby harbour. “[The turtle] was very dried out, obviously dehydrated,” Scoltz recalls. “I didn't have much hope for him at all, but he didn't give up.”

An injury to the hatchling’s left front flipper offered a possible explanation for how it wound up stranded on a rooftop. Shortly after hatching, baby sea turtles must scuttle through a gauntlet of hungry predators as they make their way to the ocean (where even more threats abound). Very few hatchlings survive to adulthood; they are preyed on by everything from stray dogs to opportunistic crabs. Birds are perhaps the most pervasive threat in the tiny turtles’ pre-ocean scramble. It’s most likely that the hatchling Scholtz found baking in the sun was accidentally dropped there by a bird of prey.

Uncertain of how to care for the youngster, Scholtz left it in the ice-cream tub, partially submerged in seawater, and monitored its behaviour. Encouragingly, the dehydrated turtle began to show signs of recovery. While doing some digging into the art of turtle rehabbing, Scholtz came across some info and a contact at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Their guidance proved invaluable as the tiny turtle – now named ‘Roofus’ as an ode to his tale – began to bounce back.

After a day under Scholtz’s care, Roofus has handed over to the Bayworld Aquarium in Port Elizabeth where it’s hoped he’ll make a full recovery.

Roofus is “the luckiest turtle alive,” according to Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation CEO Maryke Musson. “This little turtle had pretty much no chance of survival or of being found, on a roof, but it sounds as if Marius, who has rescued many other animals before, was at the right place at the right time once again.”

But Roofus is hardly the first turtle to be rescued along the Cape coastline. Thousands of loggerhead and leatherback hatchlings emerge from their eggs in the northern reaches of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province before drifting south on the warm Agulhas Current. Many of the shelled creatures do not make the journey and end up stranded on beaches, often stunned by injury, cold weather or exhaustion.

All of the ocean’s sea turtles are threatened as a result of human activities and their population numbers have plummeted in the last 200 years. So in an effort to help as many of these creatures as possible, the Two Oceans Aquarium created a network of coastal communities and organisations who can offer assistance should you stumble across a stranded hatchling. It’s the reason Sholtz was able to effectively care for Roofus.

Even in the midst of a national lockdown in South Africa as the country fights to keep COVID-19 infections to a minimum, the Turtle Rescue Network is operational and working around the clock. Essential nature conservation personnel and law enforcement officers continue to patrol stranding hotspots and these rescue operations are supported by local municipalities.

“There is always hope and every day seems to bring a positive story in some way or another – and today it is a ‘flying’, and then rescued, little sea turtle,” says Musson.

For more info about the Turtle Rescue Network, visit the Two Oceans Aquarium website.

Header image: Florida Fish and Wildlife