The loggerhead turtle was out cold, comatose, lying in the sand at Myrtle Beach. She looked like a goner.
When rescue workers transported her to the S.C. Aquarium sea turtle hospital in Charleston in July, the situation still looked dire. She had lockjaw and was malnourished. This turtle couldn't eat. She couldn't open her mouth unless two hospital workers gripped hard and wrenched with all their might.
For seven months they fed her a gruel of ground-up fish, shrimp, vitamins and blue-green algae through a tube in the stomach. They gave her antibiotics and muscle relaxers to try to ease open the jaw. But it wouldn't give.
"It was one of the most difficult cases we've had. We had never seen this before. We didn't know what to do," said hospital veterinarian Shane Boylan.
Then one day Pirate" worked her mouth open a sliver or two. She fixed her eye on a tiny mackerel dropped into the tank and her head started shaking with effort. The mouth struggled and struggled and finally sucked in the mackerel. And Pirate wanted more. "She started pulverizing fish," Boylan said.
Today, Pirate opens her mouth far enough to suck down chunks of salmon the size of candy bars. She can crush crabs. She moves back and forth in the tank, sticks her head out of the water to look around or stares out of the tank wall window. Her light color, dead-set eyes and the curious clench of the jaw give the impression she is smiling.
"She is a magnificent sea turtle," said Kelly Thorvalson, aquarium turtle rescue coordinator. "The determination in her eyes is unmatched by any turtle I've ever seen."
May marks the beginning of sea turtle season, the warm days when the loggerhead, the larger leatherback and other sea turtles crawl ashore from their ocean haunts to lay eggs in the dunes. A swarm of volunteer watch groups ribbon off the nests to keep people and pets away. More than 3,000 nests are estimated to have been laid in the state in 2009.
The turtles are all endangered or threatened species in the Southeast, and they already have arrived.
In the past week, a loggerhead, a green and a rare Kemp's ridley have stranded on South Carolina beaches. The loggerhead died before rescuers could get to it. The other two are now in the aquarium hospital. Strandings occur for a number of reasons, including boat strikes, line entanglements, pollution and disease. Pirate might have been poisoned in an algal bloom, but when she was found it was too late to tell.
The lucky ones like Pirate may be able to go back to sea. The aquarium expects to keep her another year, but if the mouth continues to open wider and she's able to feed on live prey, she'll be ready for release. She's already making better progress than could have been hoped.
"You just never know," Thorvalson said. "They surprise us."