All hands on deck at the SC Sea Turtle Rescue Program

Published: May. 30, 2014 at 3:05 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 6, 2014 at 10:29 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Since opening its doors in 2000, the Sea Turtle Rescue Program at the South Carolina Aquarium has been working around the clock to nurse sick and injured sea turtles back to health.

"We have actually released 134 sea turtles to date, and are soon going to be releasing number 135," said Kelly Thorvalson, manager of the Sea Turtle Rescue Program.

Thorvalson says it wasn't until after the SC Aquarium opened that they realized there was a need for sea turtle rescue in the state. Officials quickly gathered necessary supplies and took in their first turtle shortly after opening. As South Carolina's only Sea Turtle Hospital, the program is responsible for treating Loggerheads, Green Sea Turtles, and Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles found injured along the state's coast.

Injuries, that more often than not, are caused by humans.

"About 60% of the sea turtles that are admitted into our hospital have some sort of injury or illness that is related to humans. Whether it be boat strikes or entanglements, the ingestion of plastics that can cause a lot of digestive issues. Lots of human-caused injuries," Thorvalson says. "But certainly we see turtles that wash up that we don't understand why they're ill, but we certainly know how to treat them all."

The treatments provided at the Sea Turtle Hospital can range from food and fluid renourishment and administering antibiotics, all the way up to more serious cases like amputations.

"Almost every sea turtle that comes to us is on death's door, so they are all amazing cases and little miracles, really. We've had a few animals survive amputations due to entanglements with crab trap ropes or fishing lines. To see those animals thrive and get returned back into the wild is pretty amazing."

With nearly a dozen tanks, the hospital can normally hold 13 to 15 sea turtles at a time depending on size, but has treated 24 sea turtles at once by using mesh dividers in some of the tanks to separate the smaller turtles. All this work is performed by three full time staff members, along with an army of volunteers and interns.

Volunteers, like Linda Gordon, often assist with preparing food for the turtles, cleaning tanks, and assisting the biologists with medical procedures.

Despite spending only limited time with the turtles, Gordon says it is sometimes difficult to say goodbye when it's time for the release back into the wild.

"The very first release we did, I cried like a baby. It was just like, I couldn't stand to see these guys go," Gordon recalled. "But after working with them as long as we have, and to see how very sick they are when they come in and how healthy they are when they leave, it's a joy to see them go. I get excited to see our releases and to see them on the beach."

As more and more people begin to hit the beach this summer, the Sea Turtle Rescue Program stresses simple steps to follow to help ensure the safety of coastal sea turtles.

"We try to educate the public on things they can do to help conserve the species, which are things like filling in holes on the beach, knocking down sand castles, and making sure they take all their plastics with them," said Gordon. "You've heard the saying 'leave only footprints' and that's a good adage. And lights. If you live on the beach, don't have any lights on the beachfront, because it deters a mother from coming up and nesting at night."

So what should you do if you happen to come across an inured sea turtle? Thorvalson says dead or alive, it is important to call the

at 1-800-922-5431.



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