As a college student in 1997, Kelly Thorvalson volunteered at the still-under-construction South Carolina Aquarium.
Two years later, the College of Charleston marine biology major was hired as a full-time employee.
Thorvalson, now 46, has never taken another job. Her work, however, has provided her untold opportunities to work with creatures both big and small.
Sometimes she’s called “the turtle lady.” She’s OK with that. Her actual title, though, is Sea Turtle Rescue Program manager.
This time next year, “the turtle lady” will be anticipating expansion of the Sea Turtle Hospital. For the moment, Kelly and her staff tend to turtles in the aquarium basement. Portable tanks with filter systems and regulated water temperature are used to nurse injured and sick turtles back to health.
Turtles come in all sizes. Some loggerheads tip the scales at more than 300 pounds. Other species fit in the palm of your hand.
No matter the size, at the turtle hospital, all patients are given the utmost attention and quality of care.
During the summer months, turtles are admitted with deep gashes from boat propellers. Others might have been caught in nets or swallowed plastics.
This time of year, the problem is even more pronounced and life-threatening. Turtles suffer something called cold-stunning.
Remember how balmy it was around here during the holidays? People played golf in shorts and the Polar Bear Plunge resembled another day at the beach ... and then it wasn’t.
Conditions changed rapidly, making all of us realize very quickly that it really was winter. We’re still in its hold and we’ve adjusted with extra layers of clothing, seat warmers in our cars and one more cup of coffee as we leave the house for work.
Making quick adjustments are not so simple for turtles. Juveniles are especially susceptible to getting caught in much colder water. When this happens, they become stunned by colder conditions. Hypothermia sets in and with that comes dehydration, weight loss and no energy. The turtle essentially just floats with the current awaiting a slow death. Sometimes, that is hastened by the arrival of a shark.
Earlier this month, 400 turtles were found along the beaches of New England and 600 more on the coastline of North Carolina.
Cold-blooded animals take on the temperature of their surroundings. The ideal water temperature for a turtle is 75 degrees. A sudden cold snap can dramatically change those surroundings.
Three loggerheads were flown to South Carolina from New England. Birds fly south for the winter, but turtles? Thorvalson and her staff will spend the next few months nursing these three, and others, in the tanks at the turtle hospital.
Rescue, rehab and release. That’s all part of what may take three to eight months. The turtles are not identified as numbers, but are given names. Two are referred to as Sandwich and Quincy in deference to where they were found in Massachusetts. The other is called Chaz as a tribute to the volunteer pilot who brought them to Charleston.
Their body temps ranged from 47 to 54 degrees upon arrival. That’s more than 30 degrees below normal.
With deliberate, constant care, they and the other patients will ideally recover and return to their natural habitat. All sea turtles are threatened or endangered. They serve ecological roles in the food chain, in both directions.
Ever been at the beach when a turtle is returned to the ocean? It’s a moving experience.
This community is better because of the volunteers and staff who dedicate themselves to rescuing, rehabbing and releasing these creatures back to the big, dark ocean that is their home.
For the turtle, survival is instinctual. For the turtle hospital, their efforts are inspirational.
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org.