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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.scaquarium.org and follow the progress of turtles at www.scaquarium.org/STR/hospital/
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.