Career

The Kelly Tarlton's aquarist saving turtles one plastic bag at a time

Alyssa Berimballi (28) is an aquarist, working mainly with turtles, at Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium in Auckland.

"Most of my career so far I've been back and forth from New Zealand and Australia. I completed my university degree in Auckland, where I did a Bachelor of Science majoring in marine science, and I worked on the Auckland whale and dolphin explorer boat. I got to see the Hauraki Gulf and all the animals here, and I just fell in love with boats and the ocean!

Afterwards, I took off to Australia, staying in Port Douglas, and got a job out on the Great Barrier Reef as a marine biologist. I did that for about four and a half years before coming back to New Zealand, and it just happened perfectly that Kelly Tarlton's was in need of an aquarist and I was in need of something cool to do!

Much of my work involves taking care of the tanks and the animals – and a lot of the dirty work too! But without a doubt, my favourite part is just getting to know the animals, especially those that we help rehabilitate here at the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, which is about 20 years old.

You really get to form a connection with all of them. For us, when turtles land on the beach, that's not a good sign. It often means they've given up on life and it will be a long journey getting them back to health.

We see things like turtles suffering from cold, shock, starvation, infections and even injuries like lacerations. Sadly, a lot of those injuries can come from plastic.

There's been a study done that says one in every three turtles that wash up on New Zealand beaches have plastic in them. That's not a good figure.

When you look at plastic bags, 1.6 billion get used by Kiwis with only a 12-minute lifespan. After 12 minutes and just one use, these bags end up in the habitats of marine animals and it can destroy their lives.

More than 100 million marine animals are affected by plastic pollution. The simple act of banning plastic bags is tremendously helpful in saving the lives of these species and it's so good to see Countdown leading the way on committing to reduce plastic and supporting our turtle rehabilitation programme.

The process of rehabilitating a turtle involves many people. When a turtle gets stranded, the Department of Conservation staff are the first people called and they will pick up the turtle and fly it to Auckland. Then they contact us to let us know the turtle is on its way.

We work with the Auckland Zoo vets, who examine the turtles and let us know the best way to care for them. They'll get X-rays and blood tests done just like humans. We'll take the turtles and put them into our quarantine area, where we make sure they're taking the right medicine, and we get them eating well and gaining weight.

And then once they are doing better, we put them into our special tank − Turtle Bay!

Our busiest months are during the winter, where storms will often wash in sick turtles. Last year, there must have been 14 turtles in three months wash up on New Zealand coastlines.

I absolutely love feeding them. It can be a little bit of a love-hate relationship depending on how the turtle approaches you. But watching them progress is such a good feeling.

The bittersweet part of this job, but also one of the best bits, is releasing them. You don't want to say goodbye because you get emotionally connected to the animal, but it's really good to know that an animal you've taken care of can go back home.

It can take months to years to rehabilitate a turtle – every single one is different.

This year, we released our three green turtles, including Oscar and Kiwa, near Poor Knight's Island, which was so fantastic. They had such great personalities!

As well as working with turtles, I help take care of other species including the stingrays – who are very attention-seeking and smothering − and sharks, who have real personalities. We do diver handfeeds in one of the major tanks during the week, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we do the shark tank."

How Countdown is supporting Kelly Tarlton's turtle rehabilitation programme

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