Sea turtle recovery requires some TLC

An injured Kemp's Ridley sea turtle receives care Friday at Sea World in Orlando, Fla.

The rehabilitation of a turtle rescued from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico entails more than just a rinse with detergent.

The process is long and tedious, said South Carolina Aquarium veterinarian Shane Boylan during a news conference at the aquarium's sea turtle hospital.

Boylan recently returned from his second trip caring for turtles in the Gulf. During his first trip in May, he and other veterinarians performed necropsies on washed-up turtles, mostly rare Kemp's ridleys, in Gulfport, Miss. They found no live ones with injuries.

This time he went to "ground zero" at the Audubon Institute in New Orleans. His task was to clean and stabilize turtles caught by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Boylan said this was an arduous task not only because of the massive amount of oil but also because of the choppy water and extreme heat. The team would leave at 5 a.m. and return to the facility around 7 p.m. Most of the oil on the turtles was removed at sea.

When the turtles arrived, staff and volunteers dressed in protective plastic suits performed physicals on each turtle and documented what they saw.

After that, the turtles' eyes, mouths and throats were cleaned using cod liver and vegetable oil and even mayonnaise, which they also were fed to clean out their stomachs. This process took about 45 minutes per turtle. The turtles then were given antibiotics and vitamins and moved from the Red Zone to the Yellow Zone.

In the Yellow Zone, the turtles are cleaned again and given another physical to make sure they are stable. Then, in the Green Zone, they are cleaned again and offered food. Boylan said almost all of the turtles are eating. The turtles then are moved to larger circulating tanks after being in the Green Zone for one to two weeks.

"The problem with this oil spill in relation to sea turtles is we don't know (about) long-term effects," Boylan said. "It takes weeks, months and years for these effects to be shown."

The turtles will have to remain in the facility until the Gulf is cleaned because they instinctively return to where they came from. The younger turtles have not developed a strong instinct and might be able to return to sea. A tagging project is being conducted to study this phenomenon.

"This has never really been done before on a large effort, so we're learning right now," Boylan said. He said this is a big deal for the population of the Kemp's ridley because they breed in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Like the bald eagle, these guys were making a comeback. I don't really know if that's going to happen in the future," Boylan said.