Hefty patient putting turtle hospital to test

Sea Turtle Rescue Program Manager Kelly Thorvalson measures the leatherback turtle being treated Monday at the South Carolina Aquarium.

There were, you might say, a few complications admitting a sick leatherback sea turtle to the South Carolina Aquarium over the weekend.

Imagine a hospital taking in a 10-foot-tall man who weighs a ton.

The leatherback is heavier than 500 pounds — more than twice as much as a ponderous loggerhead that’s usually the largest treated at the aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital. She’s longer than 5 feet from head to tail, her front flipper longer than an arm.

The standard aquarium stretcher, in other words, was out of the question. Just grabbing hold of the turtle was a problem. Unlike the hard-shelled loggerheads, a leatherback’s carapace is soft, smooth and slippery. It took five people to lift her from the beach sand to a transport truck, seven to get her out.

“We had to put her on a piece of plywood, and she barely fit,” said Kelly Thorvalson, Sea Turtle Rescue Program manager. “Her flippers were hanging over the edges.”

Thorvalson had to wrap her arms around the rear of the plywood to assure the turtle wouldn’t slide off the side.

Treating the turtle won’t be much easier. Not a whole lot is known about how.

Medicine doses are the best estimate.

“Yawkey” is the first leatherback brought to the facility in its 15 years. The deep-sea, far-ranging leatherbacks turn up so rarely at turtle rehabilitation centers that other centers were contacting the aquarium Monday to ask about it.

The turtle stranded Saturday on a beach at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center north of Georgetown. There’s nothing obviously wrong with her. In the hospital tank, the turtle is curious enough to lift her head to eye an onlooker, and circles the tank with frisky pushes of a front flipper out over the rim.

“It’s doing much better than I anticipated,” said veterinarian Shane Boylan.

But the turtle apparently is underweight and is hypoglycemic. She’s not eating or showing signs that she has eaten recently.

Yawkey might be impacted, having swallowed something such as plastic that’s stuck in her digestive system. Boylan thinks it’s more likely she has an infection, swallowed a sickening algal bloom or was forcibly submerged.

But the staff is working against the clock. Sea turtles are ocean roamers that don’t do well in captivity. This one now must be restrained in a tank too snug for her to do more than turn in circles. Boylan frankly says he doesn’t know how much time they have before the turtle must be released.

“We’re just trying to relieve what symptoms we can and put her back,” he said.

With complications like that, you’d think the charm of handling a rare behemoth would fade quickly. One of its handlers pulled a back muscle lifting it.

But even for veteran staff experienced with the impressively large loggerheads, the “wow” of this turtle gleams in their eyes when they talk about her.

Leatherbacks’ front flippers are as streamlined as raptors’ wings and they move in the water much like a bird on the wing. Yawkey gracefully tucks in one rear “paddle” flipper forward to circle as the turtle paddles with the other — minimizing the water’s drag.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed we can get this guy back well again,” said Kate Dittloff of the aquarium.

For now, treatment is supportive care, Boylan said, and rounding up a few not-so-stocked supplies such as jellyfish for food and a stretcher large enough to carry her.

Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this story contained an error.

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