Loggerhead saved from plastic diet among turtles being released

South Carolina Aquarium Midway, a loggerhead treated at South Carolina Aquarium, had more plastics in its system than staff had seen before in a sea turtle.

ISLE OF PALMS — Midway goes back home to the sea Wednesday, the plastics cleaned out of the loggerhead’s digestive system. But a virtual stew of more plastics waits out there.

Midway is one of four sea turtles that will be released at 4 p.m. at Isle of Palms County Park after being rehabilitated at the South Carolina Aquarium. The multi-species release — including a second loggerhead, a green and a rare Kemp’s Ridley — is an unusual opportunity for public viewing.

And with water temperatures cooling, it might be the last beach release of sea turtles this year.

All seven sea turtle species are considered endangered or threatened. They live their lives at sea, females crawling ashore in the summer to lay eggs. Threats include shark predation, fishing line entanglements, boat strikes, disease and now, plastics.

Midway is a young loggerhead found on a sandbar off Pawleys Island in June too weak to go much farther, covered with sea leeches. It didn’t take too long to tell at least part of what was wrong. Under treatment, the turtle began passing pieces of plastic bags and balloons.

Sea turtles feed on jellyfish, and often mistake floating plastic for the prey. During a 2011 survey cruise offshore that included College of Charleston researchers, as many as a half-million pieces of plastic and other trash were found floating every square kilometer, about one-third of a square mile, in some spots.

Plastics in the digestive system isn’t the most common problem seen with turtles brought to the aquarium’s sea turtle hospital, said manager Kelly Thorvalson. But it’s becoming more common. Midway had the most plastic in its system that staffers had seen so far in a sea turtle, and more than 10 different types of plastic.

“It drives home the importance of being mindful of our waste,” said Kate Dittloff, of the aquarium.

With these releases, more than 30 rehabilitated turtles will have been returned to the sea this season after treatment at the aquarium, in a busy year in which more than 30 sick or injured turtles have been admitted to its sea turtle hospital.

Turtle releases are held on the open beach, open to the public. They are conducted by the aquarium along with S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission.

The releases are popular events, often heavily attended. Interested people should plan to carpool, arrive early, and expect to pay for parking at the county park, according to an aquarium news release.

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