‘Amazing’ patients return to the sea

Christi Hughes, with the S.C. Aquarium’s sea turtle rescue program, helps tend to a newly arrived loggerhead sea turtle at the aquarium’s sea turtle hospital.

ISLE OF PALMS — They lifted Buck out of the crate to set him on the beach and the huge loggerhead turtle drew oohs from the crowd that had lined up to watch. The crowd didn’t know the half of it.

“Amazing,” said Kelly Thorvalson, South Carolina Aquarium sea turtle rescue program manager. “Our greatest recovery.”

Nobody thought that Buck — possibly poisoned by toxins and unable to paddle its flippers well enough to stay right-side up — would ever return to the ocean.

The loggerhead was one of three sea turtles released after treatment Monday. What happened to them is a reminder of the importance of the work. Bohicket, a green sea turtle was found with its digestive system crammed full of five different types of plastic. McAdoo, another loggerhead, had been struck by a boat propeller and lost a flipper to a shark.

Then there’s Buck.

All seven sea turtle species are threatened or endangered. As hatchlings, they face a gantlet of predators, from ants to the swarm of nearshore fish, and have only a 1-in-100 chance of surviving to be adults.

Once adult, the formidable, 200-plus pound loggerhead has few predators. But two of them are predominant: sharks and man.

Boat strikes, fishing net tangles and now pollution are among the primary man-made threats to the species.

Buck was admitted to the aquarium’s sea turtle rescue hospital in July 2014, depleted and lethargic, flapping its flipper so erratically it would turn itself over in the tank. That meant it had a neurological problem. Then staff learned it had cataracts.

“I didn’t think this animal would make this kind of improvement,” said program veterinarian Shane Boylan. But the flipper problem gradually cleared up as it was treated. After surgery and rehab work, Buck began catching crabs on its own — evidently able to see well enough.

McAdoo had a propeller strike to the head that fractured its jaw so severely that staff worried whether it would heal well enough to allow it to catch crabs. But now, “he’s crushing crabs as if it were nothing,” Boylan said.

Bohicket recovered after surgery.

It’s turtle-nesting season. The females of the ocean-going species are moving in to lay eggs in the dunes that will hatch through October. The season usually means an uptick in hospital cases for the rescue program. These three turtles were released partly to make room for four more loggerheads that arrived over the weekend to be treated.

The new arrivals put the aquarium’s sea turtle hospital at 19 patients, including “a bunch of large loggerheads,” said spokeswoman Kate Dittloff. Fortunately, Buck, McAdoo and Bohicket had been cleared Friday for release, and likely would have been returned to the ocean sometime this week.

The releases are made in partnership with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission. Monday’s release was at Isle of Palms County Park.

The turtles were a little hesitant when they were set on the sand, one by one, with more than 300 people lined on either side, craning over the lines, shooting photographs and videos. But when each reached the whisk of the surf, with the crowd cheering, they simply put down their heads and swam.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.