Turtle on mission

Metro Debordieu, a Loggerhead Turtle that the South Carolina Aquarium has been rehabilitating, has begun producing eggs that need fertilized so she can produce babies. The Aquarium will release the turtle this coming Weekend. (Brad Nettles/Staff) 4/29/09

What do you do with a 320-pound sea turtle that quits eating and starts swimming compulsively around her rehabilitation tank, splashing water all over the floor? What do you do, in other words, with a loggerhead turtle in heat?

The South Carolina Aquarium plans to release DeBordieu on Saturday, a year and 10 months after she was brought to its Sea Turtle Hospital with a deep gaping hole in her shell. Staffers hope to get her back into the water in time for her to mate; the mating season is considered to run through May.

"She's just wild. She's on a mission," said Kelly Thorvalson, the aquarium's turtle rescue coordinator. The condition is singular; the turtles only ovulate every few years or so, won't do it when they're stressed, and you don't expect it to happen when they are rehabilitating in a hospital tank. As for DeBordieu, she's unique.

She's the largest sea turtle among dozens that have been treated at the hospital so far. After a 20-month-plus stay, she's the longest case the hospital has treated — at a whopping $22,000 in costs. Nobody knows how the wound happened, and it took a long time to heal.

And as reptiles go, she's been a handful — big, picky and feisty, Thorvalson said.

But DeBordieu is a winner. She dug that last nest snug up against the dunes, laid 139 eggs and had 130 hatch. "I am eager to get this animal out there. She laid a big nest, a healthy nest and it was laid in a perfect spot. This is the kind of turtle we want out there," Thorvalson said.

The loggerhead is a beloved creature of the Lowcountry coast — a long-lived sea turtle that grows to the size of a kitchen table and crawls ashore in the spring and summer to lay eggs in the dunes. A threatened species, the turtle has drawn a residents' army of volunteers keeping watch on nests up and down the coast.

DeBordieu was scheduled to be the first release this season anyway. But when she began swimming in what Thorvalson called "a migratory mode" and an ultrasound found egg follicles, the release was moved up about a month so she could make the mating season.

She'll be missed. She was found on DeBordieu Beach near Georgetown, and guarded until the S.C. Department of Natural Resources arrived, by volunteers for South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts, a residents' group that included its project coordinator, Betsy Brabson. So, DeBordieu has been one of those hospital patients who received regular visitors. And the volunteers will be back to watch her go.

"It's just a real celebration. She's part of the family," Brabson said. "She's a 60-year-old mother and she needs a father. The mental image of her swimming around after a mate is ... impressive. I hope she finds one."