Bringing Sea Turtles Out of their Shells

Four hundred miles from the ocean, rehabilitators are working to save the species.

November 19, 2014

There are a thousand ways for a baby sea turtle to die.

Too much rain before it hatches turns the bottom of the nest into quicksand. Too much sun cooks the reptile in its shells. There are hungry seagulls, raccoons, dogs, and even ants. Then there are the crabs.

“A few years ago, a passerby saw a turtle being dragged into a ghost crab’s burrow while the turtle was making his crawl from the beach,” said Josianne Romasco, a keeper aquarist at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. “He had a good-size gash on the back of his neck from the pinchers.”

Normally, such a turtle would be a goner—and rightly so. Death by predators is one way that nature weeds out the weak and keeps the gene pool strong. But instead of going to the great Gulf Stream in the sky, this guy got a name, Ghostbuster, and a ride with Romasco to Pittsburgh for rehab.

Why do all that for one little loggerhead?

Well, for starters, six out of the world’s seven sea turtle species are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. That makes every single hatchling super valuable, even the little guy that nearly got the King’s Justice from a ghost crab. Not to mention, Ghostbuster might actually be a girl—turns out, it’s really tough to sex a baby sea turtle—and girls are worth a lot more than boys, biologically speaking. 

“In 18 years, once she reaches sexual maturity, she could be laying 140 eggs three times a year,” said Romasco. “That’s 140-plus chances to get loggerheads off the endangered species list.”

It’s for this reason that Romasco helped orchestrate the Sea Turtle Second Chance Program, a partnership between the Pittsburgh Zoo and the North Carolina Aquariums. Coastal facilities, she explained, can only handle so many stranded or injured turtles, but inland facilities, like the one in Pittsburgh, sometimes have the room to help out.

When I went to check it out a few weeks ago, Romasco was hosting a two-year-old, 45-pound loggerhead named Harold and a much smaller turtle named Jolly Roger, perhaps weighing just 10 pounds and less than half the size of Harold. Both gave me a steely glare—my visit had delayed their supper.

The two were brought into Second Chance as stragglers. They weren’t injured, like Ghostbuster, who was eventually released into the sea after he healed under Romasco’s care. But for whatever reason, Harold and Jolly Roger just didn’t leave the nest with the rest of their clutch. It could be a sign of genetic weakness, Romasco said, or maybe it’s just something that will work itself out over time.

Photo: North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knolls Shore

Romasco works to develop enrichment activities that not only keep the animals engaged but also help prepare them for life in the wild. Chomping through ice cubes to get at a squid or scouring fake seaweed for hidden shrimp, for instance, teach them food doesn’t just fall out of the sky. Each turtle has to pass a series of physical and medical tests before it can graduate rehab and qualify for release. If the keepers determine, say, a turtle’s vitamin D is too low or it isn’t foraging properly, then they’ll continue to work with it until the requirements are met.

During my visit, Romasco lowered a perforated Polar water container into the tank. She then slid a dozen or so sardines into it and left Harold to work out the problem. A full-grown loggerhead would be able to use its powerful beak to crunch through this grade of plastic like a cracker, she explained, but little Harold would have to use his wits, such that they were.

While he worked the container like a fishy gumball machine, Romasco fed Jolly Roger in a nearby tank. She was worried about him. At this point in his life, he should be able to gobble down large chunks of fish, but even medium-size pieces seem to give him trouble.

That may not sound like a huge deal, but small quirks like this sometimes reveal deeper problems. When another turtle, Carson, was nearing his release date, Romasco noticed his indifference toward a live blue crab. Sure enough, after running a battery of tests, she discovered he had a serious lung infection.

“I have to remind myself every day that we didn’t take in turtles that were well to begin with,” she said. “So when they’re acting a little wonky, causing some trouble or making me sad, I have to remember this is the business I got into. They aren’t perfect.”

But if that’s the low point of turtle rehab, then the release is definitely the high. At the beginning of this month, once Harold had passed his final health assays and behavioral trials—including tearing a live lobster to shreds—Romasco and her colleagues drove him back to his birthplace in North Carolina.

There, they met up with 60 other sea turtles, mostly from North Carolina but also from places like Connecticut, Kentucky, and California. The turtles and keepers boarded a vessel and boated 32 miles out in search of the 75-degree waters of the Gulf Stream, without which the turtles would go into shock. When it was their turn, Romasco slipped Harold into the sea and waved goodbye, never to meet again.

But Harold does keep in touch via e-mail: Thanks to a satellite tracker epoxied to his shell, Romasco gets progress alerts every few days. And actually, through, you can keep tabs on him, too! Harold’s tracker last checked in on Saturday, and he’s swum a whopping 1,226 kilometers since release.

And don’t be too sad for Romasco. For every release, she gets to bring back what she calls a “party favor.” This time it’s a three-month-old loggerhead hatchling she’s nicknamed “Cutch” (after Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen), who was trapped at the bottom of one of those quicksand nests caused by excessive rain.

“Stop by and visit,” Romasco told me when I checked in with her. “They grow up fast!”

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