Stopping by Little Debbie's tank in the sea turtle hospital below the S.C. Aquarium, veterinarian Shane Boylan explained that the recovering patient will know firsthand the effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nearly all Kemp's ridley sea turtles, a critically endangered species, nest in Tamaulipas, Mexico. And though the turtles migrate north, they return to Mexico to eat the shrimp and mollusks there and to lay eggs of their own.
"She will return to the Gulf and see the effects of this," Boylan said Thursday.
Exactly what those effects are remains to be seen. Boylan spent a week in Gulfport, Miss., working with a veterinarian from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and another from the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, analyzing dead turtles that had washed ashore.
Though the oil plume from the Deepwater Horizon spill had not reached the area yet, the team worked 14-hour days to perform necropsies on 70 turtles -- nearly all Kemp's ridleys -- by the exacting legal standards required in a spill situation.
That means swabbing shells for any residue, wearing oil-free gloves and collecting evidence in oil-free bags, Boylan said. But sea turtles in the Gulf face more threats than oil.
Fishing season opened earlier this year because of the incident, meaning higher risk of boat strikes and accidental net capture. Poisonous algal blooms -- commonly known as "red tide" -- present their own set of problems for marine life.
"Everybody's blaming everybody down there," Boylan said. "The wildlife doesn't care what's killing them."
Boylan said experts don't know how many sea turtle strandings to expect as the oil spreads. The work he and others performed last week marks the first comprehensive assessment of mortality.
Sea turtles rarely wash up from pollution, Boylan said. Birds become the more iconic victims, because they live and die above the water's surface.
The Coast Guard and NOAA designated four locations to receive turtles from the spill: two in Florida, one in Mississippi and one in Louisiana. Boylan said sick animals likely would not survive a trip to the aquarium's hospital.
He speaks with Gulf Coast officials daily and said they began searching for sick animals from boats. If they recover a live turtle, they collect samples before moving the animal and then wash it off with a diluted detergent, Boylan said.
They administer antibiotics and activated charcoal, which binds to the toxins in its stomach. Boylan said oil-injured turtles wear a multicolor, viscous sheen on their skin and suffer from liver failure, as oil binds to the food in their stomach. Fumes coming off the turtle's skin damage its lungs.
"We don't know what's going to happen this year," he said.
Returning to Charleston, Boylan received the aquarium's most critically ill patient yet. The loggerhead's skin had become so eaten with infection that its bones showed through.
The problem with pulling resources to the Gulf Coast, Boylan explained, is that Charleston's stranding season also just began.
Learn more about the S.C. Aquarium at scaquarium.org