Sea Turtles Hospital Treats Car Accidents, Stingrays

Aug. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Sea turtles recover from injuries and sickness at the South Carolina Sea Aquarium's Sea Turtle Rescue Program in Charleston, South Carolina. The program works to rescue, rehabilitate and release turtles stranded along the South Carolina coast. (Source: Bloomberg)

In the basement of the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, I watched a diamondback terrapin that had been badly dinged by a car receive cutting-edge laser therapy.

“This is very good for sprains, breaks, bad ankles,” said staff veterinarian Shane Boylan as he waved a hand laser over the injured back and neck of the turtle. “Theoretically it increases blood flow and relieves pain, and allows inflammation to decrease faster than it otherwise would.”

Here in the state’s only sea-turtle hospital, which opened in 2000, Boylan and others were treating 19 animals the day I visited, including loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys and green turtles -- all threatened or endangered species.

A 99-pound loggerhead had multiple stingray wounds. A green sea turtle had an intestinal impaction. Others suffered from something called “debilitated turtle syndrome.” A number of turtles were shipped from New England late last year, having been “cold stunned” -- trapped in frigid water and too wracked by hypothermia to swim south.

If all goes well, the animals will recover and be released in the wild, like 112 specimens before them.

“There’s something about seeing a turtle being returned to the ocean that is emotional,” said Kelly Thorvalson, marine biologist and manager of the aquarium’s sea-turtle rescue program. “You can’t describe it.”

Three full-time staff and more than 300 volunteers are saving turtles along the South Carolina coast, with help from fishermen, recreational boaters and anyone else who spots trouble.

Fish Hook

“If you can catch a sea turtle in the water, something is wrong with that animal,” Thorvalson said.

As if on cue, two volunteers called in a rescue: a small Kemp’s ridley on Myrtle Beach had swallowed a fish hook. They were on their way.

“We always beg people, ‘Don’t cut the line!’” Thorvalson said. She advises instead that would-be rescuers tether the fishing line to something that can’t be swallowed, as turtles will do just that until the hook is buried in its gut.

The week before, the staff executed its first esophageal inversion, which involved peeling back the animal’s esophagus bit by bit until the hook could be safely removed, obviating the need to cut into flesh.

“It was as clean and as beautiful a surgery as we could do,” Thorvalson said.

When the Kemp’s ridley arrived, the staff rushed out to meet it, and Thorvalson began examining and measuring the creature. They prepped it for X-rays and will see how deep the hook has gone.

Seafood Program

While fishermen are responsible for numerous turtle injuries, many participate in the aquarium’s sustainable-seafood program, which encourages restaurants and retailers to buy from them if they are conscientious about how and what they catch. This is good for the turtles, according to Thorvalson: “The fishermen that are abiding by the rules are catching fewer sea turtles.”

Nevertheless, there are more turtles coming in every year, and the hospital, whose $360,000-a-year budget is funded by donations and a portion of the aquarium gate, has plans to expand. It needs more space and bigger tanks for recovering turtles, which require room to swim as they gain strength before being set free.

There is also a plan to create a recovery area within the aquarium proper, where visitors can see the turtles before they are released. (At the moment the aquarium gives guided tours of the hospital for $10, on top of the general admission.)

Teaching Aids

Raising public awareness is a key part of protecting the species, Thorvalson said. “We are saving many more turtles through outreach and education than we are with the individual animals we are rehabilitating here.” The aquarium is a staple on the grade-school field-trip circuit, and Thorvalson regularly speaks at schools and at conferences on conservation.

“But at the same time, animal care will always come first. That’s why we’re here. We’re passionate about these species.”

Other passionate humans can help the nonprofit -- and the turtles -- by donating at the aquarium website: http://scaquarium.org/Support/default.html.

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine, Greg Evans on TV, James Russell on design.

To contact the writer of this column: Mike Di Paola at mdipaola@nyc.rr.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

An endangered Kemp's ridley turtle. This specimen was among many rescued in the November 2012 "cold stunning" event off the New England coast, and is being treated for hypothermia and skin lesions.

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Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

An endangered Kemp's ridley turtle. This specimen was among many rescued in the November 2012 "cold stunning" event off the New England coast, and is being treated for hypothermia and skin lesions. Close

An endangered Kemp's ridley turtle. This specimen was among many rescued in the November 2012 "cold stunning" event... Read More

Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

A small Kemp's ridley turtle, rescued from Myrtle Beach, is measured and prepped for x-rays. The sea turtle, like many brought to the hospital at Charleston Aquarium, had swallowed a fish hook. Close

A small Kemp's ridley turtle, rescued from Myrtle Beach, is measured and prepped for x-rays. The sea turtle, like... Read More

A 125-pound loggerhead turtle at Charleston Aquarium. Stranded at Myrtle Beach, it was suffering from "debilitated turtle syndrome." Close

A 125-pound loggerhead turtle at Charleston Aquarium. Stranded at Myrtle Beach, it was suffering from "debilitated turtle syndrome."

Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

Charleston Aquarium in South Carolina. The Aquarium has plans to expand the hospital to give turtles more swimming space for recovery and the public greater access to the turtles. Close

Charleston Aquarium in South Carolina. The Aquarium has plans to expand the hospital to give turtles more swimming... Read More

Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

The four species of endangered or threatened sea turtles treated at the sea turtle hospital, represented in life-sized displays at Charleston Aquarium. Educating the public is central to the hospital's mission of saving turtles. Close

The four species of endangered or threatened sea turtles treated at the sea turtle hospital, represented in... Read More

Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

A diamondback terrapin, among several estuarine turtles rescued and rehabilitated at the Charleston Aquarium. Visitors to the Aquarium can take a guided tour of the sea turtle hospital. Close

A diamondback terrapin, among several estuarine turtles rescued and rehabilitated at the Charleston Aquarium.... Read More

Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

Eggs extracted from a rescued turtle are kept in incubation. Since it opened in 2000, Charleston Aquarium has rescued and eventually released 112 turtles. Close

Eggs extracted from a rescued turtle are kept in incubation. Since it opened in 2000, Charleston Aquarium has rescued... Read More

Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

Staff veterinarian Shane Boylan, right, administers laser therapy to a diamondback terrapin that had been hit by a car. "This is very good for sprains, breaks, bad ankles," explains Boylan. Close

Staff veterinarian Shane Boylan, right, administers laser therapy to a diamondback terrapin that had been hit by a... Read More

Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

Kelly Thorvalson, marine biologist and sea turtle rescue program manager, points out an impaction on a turtle x-ray. "Animal care will always come first," says Thorvalson. "We're passionate about these species." Close

Kelly Thorvalson, marine biologist and sea turtle rescue program manager, points out an impaction on a turtle x-ray.... Read More

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