DES MOINES, Wash. – Shi Shi the rescued sea turtle is back in the swim, making steady improvement toward good health and a hopeful release back to the wild.
A green sea turtle, Shi Shi was near death when a Makah tribal member found the turtle Nov. 16, washed ashore on Shi Shi beach (pronounced Shy Shy). The turtle had been blown off course and would have died but for the quick thinking and caring of many people, from the tribe to federal agencies and several nonprofits.
The next day, the turtle was taken to the Seattle Aquarium, which marshaled a team that worked around the clock to stabilize and warm the turtle ever so slowly, no more than 1 degree every four hours, to avoid shocking the turtle’s system.
The prognosis for the turtle’s survival was initially dire. Caitlin Hadfield, senior aquarium veterinarian, pronounced the turtle “a little bit less mostly dead.” But with the aquarium’s intensive care, the turtle rallied.
So much so, that on Tuesday the turtle was taken to an animal hospital and rehabilitation center. There, on Thursday, the turtle had the first thorough physical exam since the move.
The first step of which was to fish the turtle out of the outdoor, heated tank at the animal hospital and rehab center run by the nonprofit SR3 in Des Moines.
Not so easy, with the turtle now quite lively, gracefully sweeping across the tank with a few flipper swipes, and bobbing up to the surface for a sip of air.
So as two volunteers slipped into the tank, Casey McLean, executive director of SR3, reminded them to face the turtle’s head away: green turtles have quite a bite.
With a heave-ho, they got the turtle up and out of the tank and onto a pad, then lifted again onto a cart to wheel the turtle into the hospital. It was time for X-rays, an ultrasound, a round of antibiotics and fluids, and even some medication to get the turtle’s gut working.
The turtle’s shell is fingertip sensitive, and the turtle was awake and not sedated throughout the procedures. The turtle’s shell was smooth to the touch, with the plates defined by ridges. The legs were glossy with scaled skin, like a snake.
The staff handled Shi Shi gently. But still, a thermometer inserted, well, where it always goes if not in the mouth, is as noticed by a turtle as anyone else. Who could blame the turtle for trying to flipper away?
But that moment soon passed, and the turtle settled back into waiting out the many procedures with reptilian calm, earned in some 100 million years on our planet as a species, Chelonia mydas.
Volunteers kept the turtle – which normally would never be out of the water – well moisturized, both on the shell and flippers, with the same gel used on people for ultrasound procedures, because it would not penetrate the shell’s keratin.
What a shell it is, crowning a body that is perfectly shaped to ease through the water. Every feature of the turtle is shaped for fluid dynamics, from the shell wide at the top, narrowing to the back, the triangular shape of the head, to the sweeping arc of the front flippers.
In the wild, sea turtles are powerful swimmers, cruising along at about a mile per hour, and clocking better than 15 mph at a sprint.
They can hold their breath for hours, as they snooze on the seabed. They are called green turtles not because of their shell, but because of a layer of green fat under the skin, from eating primarily sea grasses and other plants.
No one really knows where this turtle is from, but the turtle – its sex is not known – is most likely from the population that nests on the beaches of Michoacán, Mexico. These turtles follow warm currents even far off the coast of Washington. But that’s where the trouble can start, if there is a big storm.
This turtle probably during the last cycle of storms was carried shoreward into Washington’s cold waters. Turtles can’t moderate their body temperature and become so stunned with cold they cannot eat or swim.
Veterinarian Christine Parker-Graham began a series of X-rays, the images instantly showing on a laptop. There were the turtle’s beautifully streamlined hands, like elongated versions of our own, suddenly revealed.
The X-ray showed pneumonia in the lungs – common in cold-stunned animals. An ultrasound’s grainy, swimmy images also revealed good news – the turtle’s heart was pumping well, the kidneys looked good and there was just a bit of movement in the gut.
Wounds on the turtle’s skin were healing well, a good sign, because it shows the immune system is working and the turtle has enough energy to heal. Parker-Graham cut away some of the injured flesh in a wound near a flipper, and daubed it with honey, a natural antibiotic.
“She looks good, really good, really improved, she is recovering nicely,” Parker-Graham said.
The big concern is that the turtle still is barely eating.
To keep the turtle hydrated, the care team administered a mix of fluids including electrolytes, using a large syringe fitted to a tube and needle to sluice it under the turtle’s skin.
The team also planned to give the turtle a smoothie of butter clams and herring through a feeding tube. Meanwhile, the turtle’s tank was being cleaned, refilled with water, and warmed.
The turtle’s body temperature, just 48 degrees when it arrived at the aquarium, had been perfectly restored to normal by the aquarium team. The thermometer registered 78.2 degrees during the turtle’s exam: still just fine.
The turtle is not yet an adult, and weighs about 40 pounds. Its shell measures just under 2 feet long.
The plan is to keep a close watch on the turtle, continue medications for pneumonia and wound healing, and the gastrointestinal tract. Caregivers will continue to offer a buffet of clams, herring and organic lettuce, cucumber and peppers.
Parker-Graham and McLean said the turtle is still fragile, and at any time there could be a turn for the worse. But if Shi Shi keeps up the steady improvement, the next stop in about a month is SeaWorld in San Diego, and then release back to the wild.
The turtle has the imprint within of the beach where it hatched and scrambled into the sea, to begin life’s journey, now more than a decade ago. Everyone helping the turtle is rooting for that journey to continue – all the way back to the sea. But first, Shi Shi has to start eating.
Anyone encountering a sea turtle on the beach should call the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at (866) 767-6114. Do not touch the turtle. Keep children and pets away. Call right away because the turtle needs immediate care.
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