Sea turtle found off coast of Washington, cold and clinging to life, recovers at Seattle Aquarium

The turtle had been floating helpless for so long that its head and shell were covered with algae. His body temperature had reached a crater and he was so weak he could barely move.

Deviated from its path by severe storms, a sea turtle usually at home in the warm seas off the coast of Mexico was found stranded on November 16 by a member of the Makah tribe on Shi Shi beach, a remote area. and wilderness from the tribal reserve on the Washington coast. .

His quick thinking with a phone call to tribal and federal officials sparked a rescue effort starting with a 2½ mile hike to get the 40-pound turtle off the beach. When we returned to the tribe’s village at Neah Bay, County Clallam, the problem was far from over: all roads leading to the reserve had been swept away by the same storms that hit the turtle.

A private charter plane was rushed to pick up the turtle and take it to Port Angeles, where he encountered an animal ambulance from the Seattle-based marine wildlife research nonprofit SR3 to travel to the Seattle Aquarium.

The turtle arrived at the aquarium on November 17, where a team of five initiated 24-hour intensive care, starting with a comprehensive health assessment.

The turtle weighed about half of what a teenage turtle its size should. Her body temperature was only 48 degrees when it should have been around 75 degrees.

Blood tests and an ultrasound of the turtle’s heart, kidneys, lungs, digestive tract and fins revealed one animal that had swollen muscles and a heart rate of one beat per minute instead of the usual 14. The last meal he ate, probably close to a month earlier, was still in his digestive tract because his bodily systems had shut down in the cold water.

With the help of aquarium staff and SR3, the rescue team began to increase the turtle’s temperature by no more than one degree every four hours. Lift it up too quickly and the much-needed heat the turtle could kill. The team also had to work to get the turtle to breathe.

It was a week before they dared to give the turtle a name: Shi Shi (pronounced Shy-Shy).

On November 19, aquarium staff gently loaded the turtle onto a float to try and swim in a saltwater tank. It was one of the first times that the turtle had left the enclosure installed in a locker room cold enough to avoid thermal shock.

Caitlin Hadfield, chief aquarium veterinarian, slowly removed the float and carefully let Shi Shi drift, supporting the turtle’s head. The turtle blinked, took a few breaths, barely moved a fin, as Hadfield took water with his hand from the tank and stroked it on the turtle’s heart-shaped green shell.

“She went from mostly dead to a little less most of the time,” Hadfield said. After a few brief laps around the pool, it was time for the turtle to return to the enclosure and continue to warm up, very slowly.

“It’s a real privilege to work with sea turtles, we don’t see them that often,” Hadfield said. “They are beautiful animals and very, very tough. If you can imagine a mammal trying to cross something like that, it would never survive. “

Hadfield had hoped on her morning tours that the turtle would be more active – but she was even happy to see her alive.

Shi Shi was so fragile that the turtle had to be watched 24 hours a day. “She’s so weak,” said Shawn Larson, sitting next to the turtle for the night shift on November 20. As curator of conservation research at the aquarium and head of the rehabilitation program, Larson is a veteran of long nights alone with fragile animals. count on it.

At this point, the turtle’s temperature was still only around 63 degrees, and Larson was watching the turtle closely to make sure Shi Shi was still breathing.

“I already have a connection to her,” Larson said. Although they still don’t know for sure the sex of the turtle, everyone who works with the turtle calls it Shi Shi a her.

“She really trusts us to do the right thing,” Larson said. “She was lucky. Because from the first minute everyone did it.

Getting stranded on a secluded beach on a reserve still closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic made it all the more remarkable that the turtle was rescued, Larson said. “I think we’re really giving her the best shot possible, and everyone is shooting for her.”

The night shift is going quickly, Larson said, checking the turtle every 10 minutes and writing down notes. And the turtle was nice to be with. “They have a calm and wise presence about them,” Larson said. “We don’t know the stories she might tell, what she’s been through. We just hope we can save his life.

On Friday, Shi Shi’s condition continued to improve. While Shi Shi was still fragile, Hadfield was surprised and delighted to see the turtle swim longer, even dive to the bottom of the tank, rest for a bit, and then resurface. The healthcare team decided that Shi Shi was strong enough to stay in the pool full time.

Green sea turtles are generally found in temperate and subtropical waters of the Pacific; this turtle probably belonged to the population that nests on the beaches of Michoacán, Mexico, Hadfield said. Because they can’t regulate their own body temperature, when turtles are blown away in the cold waters of Washington, they quickly get into trouble.

Sea turtles are threatened with extinction in their home waters due to a combination of threats including climate change, being caught in fishing gear, being hit by boats, turtle and egg harvesting, loss and degradation of nesting and foraging habitat, ocean pollution and marine debris.

It took a large team of people, including the Makah Tribe, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, SR3, and the Aquarium to get Shi Shi this far – over a dozen people in all.

The next step is for the turtle to eat on its own. If Shi Shi continues to do well, the turtle will then be transferred to a saltwater tank at SR3’s facilities in Des Moines, said Carey McLean, the association’s executive director and veterinary nurse. The next stop will be Sea World in San Diego, and finally, when the turtle is well enough and the sea temperatures have warmed up, release it back into the wild.

“These turtles are threatened and endangered around the world,” Larson said. “It is important that this animal returns to the population. “

With winter not even officially starting yet, there could be more strandings.

Anyone who encounters a sea turtle or ailing marine mammal on the beach should keep children and pets away. Do not touch the animal, remain silent so as not to stress the animal and call the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 866-767-6144.


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