'Stinky' still OK after decade

South Carolina Aquarium and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources staff measure Stinky before releasing him in January 2001.

Bill Jordan

The turtle hospital staffers hadn't refined the art of naming their patients. Heck, the South Carolina Aquarium hadn't even opened yet, when a barnacle-encrusted, juvenile sea turtle was found floating like a log in Port Royal Sound.

The only thing for sure was that barnacles reek, and sick turtles don't smell too pleasant. So it was probably inevitable that the first loggerhead to be rehabilitated at the aquarium would be tagged with the name "Stinky."

Nearly 10 years later, Stinky left a nicer trace this time. The turtle was pulled in a survey trawl this summer off the Georgia coast -- as an adult male ready to mate.

"A fat healthy turtle, flapping its flippers around us, telling us it was ready to go back in the water," said Julia Byrd, S.C. Natural Resources wildlife biologist.

The recapture is only the second among more than 50 releases from the aquarium's sea turtle hospital. It's a rare second look at a male; adult males spend their lives at sea, aren't often caught, and are largely a mystery. The data from Stinky gives researchers a little better bead on just how old the turtles are when they begin to reproduce, said David Owens, College of Charleston biology professor.

And Stinky's re-emergence is something more.

"It really shows that rehabilitation works," said Kelly Thorvalson, aquarium turtle rescue coordinator.

Loggerheads are huge, endangered sea turtles. They have become a signature of the South Carolina coast in the Lowcountry, where females crawl ashore each summer to dig thousands of nests in the dunes, and the public-private effort to monitor and restore the declining population is a national leader.

The Regional In-Water Trawl Survey managed by DNR has shown that turtles in the Georgia-South Carolina waters often are recaptured within five miles of where they were netted before. Of 1,700 tagged turtles netted in the survey overall, only 16 came from outside those waters, said Mike Arendt, of DNR, the survey's lead investigator.

But they can scoot. Loggerheads have been reported to travel the East Coast from New York to Florida.

Stinky was a "floater," a turtle bloated with gas from an infection, when he was discovered in the sound in August 2000. He had no visible injuries, and the infection, oddly enough, wasn't in the guts -- it was in the body wall. A fish hook or the sharp shard of a swallowed bone might have infected him.

"The turtle was literally just blowing itself up inside," said Owens, who operated to release the gases, allowing antibiotic treatment to begin. In January 2001, Stinky was one of two sea turtles released on the beach at a wildlife refuge near Melbourne, Fla. His recapture nearly a decade later is remarkable, Owens said.

"Most of the time you put them back in the ocean and pray," he said.

Three more rehabilitated sea turtles are headed back to sea this week.

A loggerhead and a Kemp's ridley will be released at Folly Beach County Park on Saturday. Another loggerhead is being released offshore today. That loggerhead has been struck twice by boats; the offshore release is a safety precaution. The releases bring to 54 the number of turtles that have been returned to the ocean since South Carolina Aquarium-based rehabilitation started.

Released at Folly Beach will be Santos, a 100-pound loggerhead found cold-stunned off New England in 2008, and Surfer, a juvenile Kemp's ridley caught on the hook by a fisherman on Hilton Head Island four months ago. Kemp's ridleys are the rarest of the seven endangered sea turtle species; their nests have been found in South Carolina only a few times since monitoring started.

The Folly Beach release takes place at 4 p.m. at the park on the island's southwest end. Charleston County Park and Recreation fees apply: $7 per car. The popular releases normally draw large crowds, so organizers advise getting there early and planning for heavy traffic.