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Can't we all just lend a flipper?
Published Monday, December 22, 2008 9:21 AM
By Paul Zoeller
Summerville Journal Scene
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North Myrtle, a loggerhead sea turtle, was just floating in the surf when it was discovered with severe cracks in the shell. The sea turtle had been living with the large cracks, usually caused by boat propeller blades, for about three weeks before it was rescued.

Many turtles like North Myrtle, named after the location it was found, are stranded on South Carolina beaches every year. But unlike those usually found dead, this story will have a happy ending thanks to the efforts of the South Carolina Aquarium's Sea Turtle Rescue Program.

Dr. Shane Boylan, aquarium staff veterinarian, intern Jacqueline Gobien and Kelly Thorvalson, Sea Turtle Program coordinator lift North Myrtle, a loggerhead sea turtle, out of it's tank at the South Carolina Aquarium's Sea Turtle Rescue Program hospital.

The program, located at the South Carolina Aquarium, started soon after the opening of the aquarium in 2000 but was officially established in 2005. The hospital is staffed by a team of doctors and volunteers to aid in the recovery of sick and injured sea turtles. This is an important project considering sea turtles are an endangered species. How does this happen to an animal around since the age of dinosaurs?

Intern Jacqueline Gobien wipes down the glass of one tank as North Myrtle, left, splashes her from the other tank.

According to Dr. Shane Boylan, aquarium staff veterinarian, it has a lot to do with us. The largest threat to the sea turtle population is humans -- from beach development to pollution. They eat plastic bags mistaking them for a jelly fish, get hit by boats because they expect dangers from below and not above or get caught in fishing lines while swimming. As Boylan explained, they don't have the capacity to learn and can't deal with new threats. Sharks and other dangers have been around for centuries. Human threats have only been around a short time.

Each sea turtle has a board above its tank with pictures from its rescue.

Since conception the hospital has treated and released 32 turtles back into the ocean. Although the numbers seem small, consider the sea turtles require 7-8 months of recovery before they can be released. Right now the hospital has a record number of 12 sea turtles in its care which is a big number for many reasons. The most pressing is space and cost. The hospital has only so many tanks and it costs over $350 a day to care for the sea turtles. The cost for caring for a turtle for such long periods is a large financial burden for the aquarium, a non-profit organization.

A loggerhead turtle pops up to take look at me.

Why put so much into saving the sea turtles? Simply, a sea turtle might lay about 120 eggs. At best, 1 in 100 survive meaning any turtle this old is rare and a survivor. And saving one turtle will allow that turtle to lay eggs and produce other turtles, helping the species grow.

Feeding time consists of some interesting looking dishes including squid.

North Myrtle was not the only turtle with a hard-luck story to tell. Myrtle, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle, arrived at the hospital with a cracked skull. Kelly Thorvalson, Sea Turtle Rescue Program coordinator, said a surgery using staples was performed and now the turtle, one of the most endangered of the turtles, is recovering. Looking at pictures before the surgery and now is amazing but Myrtle still has a ways to go before it fully recovers.

Myrtle, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle, came to the hospital with a fractured skull but the doctors were able to staple the skull back into place.

The day I visited the hospital a couple of turtles were going through treatment. First of all, treating a turtle isn't easy. One of the turtles at the hospital, Momma Pritchard, a loggerhead, weighs in at 326 lbs. Imagine lifting that out of the water for treatment. As sick as they may be, these turtles still like to bite. I was told to keep my hand out of the tanks if I wanted to keep my fingers. I figured if they eat live crab, shell and all, then my fingers would be a fish stick to them.

The hospital houses 12 turtles now, the most in the history of the hospital.

The first to receive treatment was North Myrtle. After lifting the 96 lb. turtle from the tank, old dead bone tissue was removed to assist in the healing of the broken shell. Dr. Boylan said the turtle was experiencing a lot of pain because the spinal cord is attached to the shell. Every time the shell moves around, so does the spinal cord. It seemed so overwhelming to me as I watched them work. The whole shell was so severely damaged, I did not know how it would ever get better.

Hospital staff pull away the dead bone tissue to help the healing process after North Myrtle came to the hospital with multiple shell cracks.

They assured me North Myrtle was improving and we moved on. Pritchard, a loggerhead, was found by a DNR, department of natural resources, rescue boat after it had been speared by a stingray barb in the front flipper. This one just watched me as if it knew I was taking pictures. At one time it started raising its flippers as if it was waving. The injury was healing and the wound only required cleaning.

Pritchard, a loggerhead sea turtle, watches from a tire as its stingray barb wound is cleaned.

The facility works hard to help the turtles medically but Thorvalson insists that is not the only goal of the hospital. The hospital saves turtles through education as well. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday the hospital gives tours of the facility so others can learn about dangers to the sea turtle and what they can do to help protect them.

Simple things like turning off artificial lights near the beach can help protect sea turtles. Every time an egg hatches, the turtles head for the brightest light believing it is the moon guiding them to the ocean. Turtles turned inland following a porch light usually fall prey to animals, cars or malnutrition.

Kelly Thorvalson, Sea Turtle Rescue Program coordinator, lifts a splashing Myrtle, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle, out of its tank.

One question I wanted to be educated on was the life span of a sea turtle. Thorvalson and Dr. Boylan both explained that there is no way of knowing the answer right now. No technology has been around long enough to track a turtle from birth to death considering they can live to be over 100 years old. Basically they outlive the people studying them.

Kayla Butler, 22 mos., and her mother, Karen, of Mount Pleasant, take part in a tour of the hospital.

Visiting the hospital was an eye-opening experience. I learned a lot from the staff and thoroughly enjoyed watching the turtles. If you are interested in seeing more, visit the South Carolina Aquarium at and follow the progress of turtles at

Better yet, visit the hospital and check on the sea turtles yourself.

Paul Zoeller is a freelance photographer new to the area. Do you have an idea for a new blog or a question about a current blog? If you do contact Zoeller at

Comments (5)

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Friday, January 28, 2011 2:49 PM

i love turtles they can be messy thow so be carefull all u lil kid dont let them bit ur fingers off or eat u!!!!

Posted by:
Friday, December 26, 2008 6:36 PM

They are cute. Is this my imagination or someone was feeding Myrtle something to eat????

Posted by: Co Hoa
Thursday, December 25, 2008 12:15 AM

This was our favorite!! They are so cute. Wish we could have gone with you.

Posted by: Crystal and Brayden
Wednesday, December 24, 2008 12:21 PM

I am a huge fan of sea turtles and would love to visit the hospital myself. Since I am many states away this blog was the next best thing. Thank you for sharing this with us - the recovery program is fascinating!

Posted by: Joanne
Great Photography
Monday, December 22, 2008 1:16 PM

Hi Paul, I love the photographs. Great Job!

Posted by: Doug Klembara

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