Follow a recent rescued loggerhead to the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Since I recently helped rescue a loggerhead sea turtle, it seemed fitting to go visit her in the hospital. In South Carolina, all rescued sea turtles are routed to the Sea Turtle Rescue Program at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston.
The Sea Turtle Rescue Program aids sick and injured sea turtles in partnership with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and operates in three phases: “Rescue. Rehabilitate. Release.” The ultimate goal is to return healthy turtles to the wild in order to ensure that sea turtles survive and thrive in our oceans. Currently all seven species of sea turtles are listed as threatened or endangered, which is why intervention occurs. (The seven species are: green, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley, Kemp’s ridley and flatback.)
Inside The Sea Turtle Hospital
“We never expected to be taking care of sea turtles when we built the facility,” said Kate Dittloff, public relations manager for the South Carolina Aquarium while escorting me past security and inside the facility. “We got a call a few months after we opened from the Department of Natural Resources who had found a large sick sea turtle and asked us if we could care for the animal. Our director of husbandry at the time said sure and he ran to Kmart and bought a giant blue kiddie pool. That’s how the program was born.” Today, rows of round pools hold sea turtles of various size, species and medical condition in a large room underneath the Aquarium that hums with the constant whirring of water filtration systems.
Since its very first turtle patient in 2000, the Sea Turtle Rescue Program has successfully rehabilitated and released more than 200 sea turtles. Patient capacity has grown to keep up with need: so far in 2016, 43 sea turtles have been admitted. The facility is being expanded to increase capacity even more.
The new Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery center is currently under construction; the groundbreaking took place on Wednesday, September 21, 2016. “The new world-class exhibit will open in May 2017,” said Dittloff. “It will be the only exhibit of its kind in the entire world.”
Meet Anna Hyatt
Rescued sea turtles are given names that represent where they were found. The turtle Mandy Johnson and I helped rescue is now named Anna Hyatt, after Anna Hyatt Huntington, the former owner of what is now Huntington Beach State Park.
As I approached the tank holding Anna Hyatt on Tuesday, September 27, 2016, she looked better than the last time I’d seen her: She was swimming actively.
“Any time you see a sick or injured sea turtle that’s not acting like how an animal would act, you should definitely call authorities,” said Dittloff. “It’s not normal for a turtle to hang in plough mud.”
Anna Hyatt, an adult female loggerhead, has been diagnosed with Debilitated Turtle Syndrome—“It’s like pneumonia in humans,” said Dittloff. “We don’t know what the cause is, but these turtles have low blood protein levels, low blood values, low fluid, are really anemic, not eating as well as they should be, aren’t as active. Oftentimes these cases can take a long time to treat. It takes a long time for a sea turtle to turn around and get healthy again because it took a long time to get into this state, probably several months. It was so weak that it couldn’t even get off the shore. If you guys had not found this animal it could have been dead in a week or two.”
“It does take a long time to recover from this specific illness,” said Dittloff, “But the fact that they can recover when they are so close to death is incredible. When you see them in this state and then when released it’s like ‘Wow, they got so much better!’ Our releases are back to full health and it’s like night and day. There have been turtles that have come in and I was like, ‘There’s no way this turtle is going to survive,’ and it does. One in particular, Windjammer, was covered in barnacles from head to toe, not moving, was in shallow water for days and it took probably a full year for that animal to get turned around. When we got him out the door he was beautiful, his shell was back to full color, he was energetic, healthy. That was a game changer for me personally when I saw that turnaround. These animals have been around longer than dinosaurs, which says a lot.”
Q&A With Kelly Thorvalson
Kelly Thorvalson is a marine biologist and Sea Turtle Rescue Program manager. Thorvalson, who has led the Program since 2002, organizes patient admissions and ensures all the sea turtles receive healthy diets and necessary medical treatments while they’re in the Sea Turtle Hospital. She also provides educational tours of the facility. She answered my questions about Anna Hyatt and the Program in general.
Let’s talk about how the Program helps rescued turtles starting with Anna Hyatt since I’m familiar with her case. A volunteer brought her here?
Yes. Terry Graham. She’s a turtle nest protection volunteer with the Garden City turtle team and is also one of six SCDNR permitted transporters in South Carolina—there’s one in North Myrtle Beach, two in Garden City, one on Pawley’s Island, two in Charleston County and one in Hilton Head, so that team covers the coast. Transport volunteers know that they will be driving for any stranding, they never know what day, what time, or how many a day.
How many can you hold?
It depends on size. We can hold one Anna Hyatt in this tank or four juvenile green turtles in here.
What if you’re at capacity but a sea turtle is found?
We will find a facility that has room to take her in. That’s what happened to Magnolia, an adult female loggerhead, this summer. We transferred her to Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach because we ran out of space. They were able to take her because she was stable and off all medications. All she needed was to gain weight and for her blood work to correct which can take months. We prefer not to transfer a turtle on medication. Last summer was the first time we had to transfer a turtle because of lack of space since opening this facility in 2005. Last year we transferred four loggerheads to North Carolina and this summer, the one adult female.
It’s like a puzzle. We are very good at figuring out where to put turtles to maximize our space. The most we have held at one time was 25 and that was before we added temporary tanks. We admit mostly loggerheads; they’re big and need more space than juvenile greens and Kemp’s ridleys. In addition, they eat a lot and defecate a lot which can be challenging.
For three years we’ve been planning the expansion and it is needed now more than ever. The rescue numbers are increasing and we’re bursting at the seams during the height of stranding season. Sea turtle numbers are rising in the waters and there are more sea turtle nests on the coast—that’s good news! But it also means there are bound to be more interactions between people and turtles every season. We’re a non-profit organization and raising $5 million was quite a feat but we have made that goal.
The new facility sounds fantastic! Getting back to admissions, such as Anna Hyatt, once she arrives what happens next?
Time is of the essence to get that animal here, which is part of why the SC Department of Natural Resources put together the transporters across the state rather than sending one of their team members. It takes extra time to pick up a transport truck, drive to get the animal and then travel back to Charleston. Local volunteers in the areas of the stranding can get here in half the time. Anna Hyatt was incredibly debilitated. Supportive care includes fluids, which is a critical part of what we do. They’re very dehydrated when they strand in this condition. They’re extremely vitamin deficient from not eating for months, their carapace (top shell) and margins are literally soft from them absorbing calcium from their bones—purely for survival—and their Vitamin D and calcium levels are rock bottom. We give them vitamin injections as well as antibiotics because we know an animal that’s been sick for as long as this turtle has, is riddled with internal infections.
How long do you think she’d been sick?
I would say three to five months, maybe.
It will take her at least that long to recover?
Probably six months minimum. [She weighs 140 pounds now and will need to reach at least 170 before release.] Over the years we’ve gotten better at what we do, so we’re learning their diets better, increasing our filtration components to be able to handle a bigger diet. We can only feed what the filtration can handle. We make sure they’re gaining, but if we’re compromising their water quality that’s not healthy, so we need to balance. The more filtration components we add, and we’re consistently doing that, the more food the system can handle, which shortens the time it can take a turtle to gain weight back. Six to eight months is about average for Debilitated Turtle Syndrome. Ten years ago, it would take us a year.
You’ve figured out their diet.
Absolutely. Many get fed once in the morning and once in the afternoon, giving the filtration systems time to work. Especially after a sea turtle hasn’t eaten in so long, we have to introduce food slowly or it shocks their gut. On the first day of feeding they get a small piece, next day two pieces, and we slowly increase it before we give them a weight gain diet.
What’s the most common problem that brings turtles here?
Debilitated Turtle Syndrome is one of the most common; this year we’ve received 10 or 12 turtles with it. No trauma, just emaciation, extremely poor blood work, lethargy, and internal infection.
Anna Hyatt was bleeding a bit when she was loaded into the transport van. What was going on?
Debilitated turtles are fragile. They’re so nutrient deficient that their bones, skin and keratin are not healthy and they can abrade really easily.
I think there were oysters around?
She probably got cut by oysters. Another thing is their blood work is so poor they have very low protein so they bleed easily. Proteins in blood are really important; one of their main jobs is blood coagulation.
Same as a person?
Absolutely. The treatment is similar except sea turtles have slow metabolisms; they metabolize medications very differently than mammals. Their antibiotic regimen is once every three days for three to four weeks rather than once a day for 10 days.
When this Sea Turtle Hospital opened, were others along the East Coast already open?
Yes. There were several in Florida and one in North Carolina, as well as a couple in the northeast. The facility in Georgia was not yet open.
The sea turtle hospitals work together. Do you have specialties?
I suppose some do, although any rehab facility can treat anything. We work closely together in that we’re in communication. If something is stumping us or if there is something we’ve never seen before we’ll put it out there to the group. We help each other out if there are major stranding events. The most common is cold stunning. In the fall when cold fronts come through cooling coastal waters very quickly, sea turtles will go into hypothermic shock. It’s typically geographical, commonly North Carolina and Cape Cod because of their sounds. We all pitch in. Aquariums such as Ripley’s in Myrtle Beach also pitch in for these events. We all make ourselves uncomfortable with more turtles than space but the turtles have to go somewhere. We’ve taken up to 15, sometimes right before Christmas, working 13-hour days, but that’s what we do…we pull together and it’s amazing.
Other common conditions?
Cataracts are something we’re seeing more of every year; we don’t understand the cause. We do cataract surgery to remove their lenses and they are able to be released. We feed them live crabs to be sure they can hunt before release.
It’s better to remove the cataracts?
Yes, they’re literally blinded from the cataracts. We know they can see before we release them, otherwise they wouldn’t survive.
Any particularly interesting case right now?
Briar is an adult female loggerhead, she’s our very first return patient. Initially she had debilitated turtle syndrome. It took her four weeks to stabilize, then she got better in about a year and a half. She was released and then two years later she’s back with a boat strike on her shell. It’s pretty incredible because most sea turtles that wash up or are found are dead—approximately 85 percent!—so for her to wash up twice but alive, she is really beating the odds. She’s a pretty incredible turtle.
Will her shell grow back?
The bone won’t grow back in but the keratin will completely cover the tissue.
Do you think she recognizes the Sea Turtle Hospital, having been here before?
No. Sea turtles are solitary creatures, have very small brains and are incredibly instinctive. That’s why this rehabilitation process works: They never get used to being handled.
Sea turtles can turn on a dime: They’re so much faster than you think they are.
We’ve had three shark attack victims just this year. Not all sharks win during an encounter with a sea turtle.
On Wednesday, October 12, we received some very sad news:
“I am so sorry to have to give you this news but Anna Hyatt passed away on Sunday [October 9, 2016]. A full necropsy was performed yesterday afternoon and her cause of death as described by our vet, Dr. Boylan: ‘Anna Hyatt died from cardiac tamponade. The heart or a major vessel ruptured in the pericardial sac and the vasculature bled into the pericardial space constricting the heart. It takes just minutes to die from this, and it is unrecoverable.’ Our team is truly saddened by her death as I’m sure you will be. Thank you for your part in her rescue–she wouldn’t have had a chance if not found in the first place.” –Kelly Thorvalson
We wanted some more information, plus wondered how the South Carolina Aquarium had fared during Hurricane Matthew. We talked with Kelly Thorvalson for more details.
We’re sad to learn that Anna Hyatt died. It was unexpected? What happened? Is this common with Debilitated Turtle Syndrome?
Sea turtles suffering from Debilitated Turtle Syndrome are emaciated, dehydrated, have extremely poor blood work, and their tissue and bones are extremely compromised. Anna Hyatt had been sick for months and although her death was unexpected, we do know that death is a real possibility until they are given a clean bill of health by our veterinarian. We wish our patients could tell us how they feel but they are some of the most stoic animals on earth. Necropsy revealed that Anna Hyatt died from cardiac tamponade, a major vessel ruptured in the pericardial sac constricting the heart. We were heartbroken by her death.
You’ve released more than 200 rescued turtles. What percent of patients survive?
Most of the sea turtles that wash up on South Carolina beaches (an average of approximately 126 each year ) are unfortunately dead, so of the few that strand alive, many are close to death and we have our work cut out for us. They don’t all survive, but we are excellent at what we do and save many more turtles than not. We don’t calculate survival rate because that information isn’t helpful to us. We give every single turtle the best chance to survive.
How did you protect turtles (and other animals at the South Carolina Aquarium) during Hurricane Matthew? Did you suffer any hurricane damage? Is the Aquarium back to fully open/operational at this time?
The Sea Turtle Hospital is located in the basement of the Aquarium and is a renovated storage space. Because of its location, it takes the brunt of floodwaters during a hurricane. Once we battened down the hatches in the hospital, no one could enter until after the hurricane was over. Because of this, it was imperative that all sea turtles “evacuate” to higher floors so the Aquarium’s Ride Out Team (staff who live at the Aquarium during the hurricane) could take care of them. We felt confident that all our turtles would do well during the hurricane. They were in tanks with shallow water and foam beds.
Fortunately there was only minor damage to the Aquarium. Charleston was largely spared compared to many other coastal cities and our hearts go out to them.
Which patient is next scheduled for release?
We actually released three additional patients on October 14th: Ray, Serp and Oyster. This brings us to 205 total releases.
Are you still on track with construction of the Sea Turtle Recovery Center?
Despite Hurricane Matthew interrupting progress, the construction on the Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery Center is still on track!
How can we help?
The South Carolina Aquarium is a non-profit organization and the Sea Turtle Care Center is only possible through the generosity of donors. This is also true for the expansion that is currently underway. To make a donation, go to www.scaquarium.org. People can also help by visiting the Aquarium and taking a tour of the Sea Turtle Hospital. Tour times are daily at Noon and 2 p.m.!
- Read more about Anna Hyatt’s rescue.
- Read more about sea turtle hospitals.
- Link to Black River Outdoors.
– Photo Credits: Anna Hyatt admission, SC Aquarium Tours and Kelly Thorvalson images courtesy South Carolina Aquarium; remainder © HSP Media LLC. Click on image for credit details.
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.