When Tucker the Turtle was found stranded and starving on an Oregon beach last December, the aquarium took him in. He’s making good progress and should be ready to return to the wild soon.
Tucker the Turtle has had a tough time.
Tucker was far from his warm home waters off the Pacific Coast of Mexico. Perhaps he was swept off course by December storms. Or maybe domoic acid from the toxic algae bloom that bedeviled West Coast waters even into the fall last year fouled his navigational senses. Whatever the cause, he was carried on ocean currents farther and farther north — and growing colder, and colder. He slowly became inert, unable to swim, his body nearly shut down.
“Basically he turned into a piece of driftwood,” said Tim Kuniholm, spokesman for the Seattle Aquarium.
Finally ocean waves carried him all the way to Cannon Beach, Ore. Too cold and spent to move, Tucker was stranded, starving, and helpless on the beach. But then, his fortunes changed.
Lucky for Tucker, a beachcomber found the olive ridley sea turtle washed ashore and unmoving, and reported the turtle to local authorities, who in turn called the Seattle Aquarium, the state’s only recognized turtle-rehabilitation facility. While he was found in Oregon, the aquarium made space for Tucker. They took him in Dec. 14.
When she first saw Tucker, Lesanna Lahner, the aquarium’s full-time veterinarian, wasn’t sure he was even alive. She administered the standard proof of life test for a chronically cold turtle: touching him around the eyes, to see if he would blink. Nothing. But then she pinched his tail — and he tucked it.
Tucker was named. And the rescue was on.
Tucker’s internal temperature was in the mid-40s when he arrived, about half what it should be.
“He was cold stunned,” Lahner said of the turtle, who is about 15 to 20 years old and weighs 75 pounds. “His organs were just in a holding pattern. When they are that cold, they are pretty much shut down. He was a particularly challenging case because he was not breathing on his own.” He also had severe pneumonia.
With no ventilator suitable for an animal that breathes only twice a minute, Lahner and aquarium staff took turns pressing a bulb on a tube in his mouth to puff air into the turtle’s lungs around the clock, for a week. Then Tucker finally took his first breath on his own.
Lahner and her team also slowly warmed the turtle, raising his body temperature about 2 degrees a day, by allowing him to acclimate in a room with exposure to the outside air and a heater.
Unable to eat at first, Tucker eventually regained his appetite. On came the buffet of hand-fed, human-grade seafood: more than 2 pounds a day of anchovies, shrimp and squid. By now Tucker’s eating four times a day and has gained 7 pounds.
Next for Tucker will be a trip to a hyperbaric chamber, to correct his buoyancy. Tucker is floating near the surface of the water in his baby pool, instead of staying near the bottom except to breathe, Lahner noted. That is probably because he still has micro-bubbles of air in his tissues from his stranding, which immersion in a hyperbaric chamber can correct.
Once he’s swimming properly, he’ll be ready for release. The plan is to fly him to San Diego to swim off into the sea at the end of the month, Lahner said.
It sounds like she’ll miss him.
“Sea turtles are such special creatures; they are beautiful animals, and even though they are fairly common we don’t know that much about them,” Lahner said.
“They’re just magical, really.”
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How they navigate and where they go in the open ocean, no one really knows. Males such as Tucker spend their lives alone in the open sea. Females, however, every year come ashore en masse to lay their eggs together on the same beaches.
The arribada, or arrival as it is called, is thought to boost survival of hatchlings, by overwhelming predators with sheer numbers of scrambling baby turtles hurling themselves along the sand to the sea.
However their mass arrival to nest also has made the turtles easy pickings for poachers of both the turtles and their eggs. Once numbering in the millions, today the olive ridley sea turtle population numbers about 800,000 nesting females annually.
They are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
With a noble bearing, a prehistoric, reptilian face and a graceful hooked bill, Tucker has endeared himself as he’s fought his way back to life. What Lahner learned in caring for him also will help the staff understand turtles better.
Caring for Tucker and releasing him back to the wild is all part of the aquarium’s mission, said C.J. Casson, life-sciences director for the aquarium.
“We are here to inspire conservation of the marine environment,” Casson said. “This is one more way we can do that.”