Hospital treats turtles in trouble

Kelly Thorvalson, senior biologist for the S.C. Aquarium, treats a Kemp's Ridley turtle Saturday that was brought to the aquarium's hospital Friday. The endangered turtle washed up on Debidue Island in Georgetown County. Researchers aren't sure what made

The patient arrived Friday, barely alive.

"She made it through the night, and that's a big deal," said Kelly Thorvalson on Saturday morning, strapping on surgical gloves.

With the help of volunteer Jacquie Miller, Thorvalson lifted the patient — a 30-pound Kemp's Ridley turtle — for an antibiotics injection. "She's by no means out of the woods," Thorvalson said.

The world's sea turtle population is in a similarly precarious position.

Every year, about 40 sea turtles wash ashore on South Carolina beaches, victims of disease, boat strikes and fishing hooks. Most will die. The lucky ones end up at the S.C. Aquarium's Sea Turtle Hospital, where Thorvalson and other aquarium staffers work hard to save their lives.

The hospital is tucked away on the aquarium's ground floor in windowless rooms a world away from the penguins and sharks swimming in the exhibit areas above. The hospital program doesn't get the kind of attention that these exhibits get, but aquarium officials hope to change that in the coming months.

On Saturday, for instance, the aquarium held special tours of the hospital in celebration of World Turtle Day. Officials plan to do more public tours this summer. The hospital "really helps define the aquarium's conservation mission," said Thorvalson, senior biologist and hospital program coordinator.

Before Saturday's first hospital tour, Bev Ballow, a volunteer, showed off "Myrtle," a Kemp's Ridley turtle hit by a boat last summer off Myrtle Beach. A surgeon wired Myrtle's skull together. Now, hospital staff are treating the turtle for "floating disorder," an inability to dive for food, a common ailment among sick and injured turtles.

"This particular turtle has a lot of spirit," Ballow said, adding that she works with other volunteers to monitor turtle strandings on the Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island. "Last night, a gorgeous loggerhead washed up dead on Sullivan's Island," she said. Scientists weren't sure how the turtle died, but marks on the turtle suggest a collision with a boat may be the cause.

The hospital itself has the sterile, fluorescent-lit feel of some human hospitals, brightened by photographs of aquarium staff releasing their patients back into the wild. On Saturday, it was full of patients, nine in all. Blue and gray tanks held four Kemp's Ridleys and five loggerheads, including a 326-pounder nicknamed "Mama Pritchard" found on Pritchard's Island last July with a boat-strike wound.

Its most recent patient, if it survives, may be nicknamed "Little Debbie," Thorvalson said. Staff name the turtles after the places where they were found, and this Kemp's Ridley was found on Debidue Island.

The hospital program has a budget of about $150,000 a year and depends on donations and grants, Thorvalson said. A wish list tacked near one tank listed dye-free laundry detergents, clipboards, a 4X4 truck and a projector. Thorvalson said schoolchildren have been especially helpful. Saturday, Howe Hall Elementary School officials were on hand to talk about how they raised $400 for the aquarium's conservation efforts.

The stakes are high, particularly for Kemp's Ridley. It's the most endangered of the sea turtle species, its numbers decimated by fishing, population and poachers in Mexico who, among other things, use turtle skin to make cowboy boots. The Kemp's Ridley isn't the only turtle species in trouble. "All sea turtles are either threatened or endangered," Thorvalson said. "But today we want to celebrate all turtle species."