Sea turtles fight car accidents, stingrays in basement hospital

September 02, 2013 - 12:04:11 am

Kelly Thorvalson, marine biologist and sea turtle rescue programme manager at the Charleston Aquarium, examines a turtle x-ray. 

by Mike dI paola

Charleston: 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 programme. “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. “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 oesophageal inversion, which involved peeling back the animal’s oesophagus 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 to see how deep the hook has gone.

While fishermen are responsible for numerous turtle injuries, many participate in the aquarium’s sustainable-seafood programme, which encourages restaurants and retailers to buy from them if they are conscientious about how and what they catch.