Northwest Wanderings: Getting huge sea turtles from their habitat to an exam room and back is an annual challenge for the care team — and for these turtles.
Getting huge sea turtles from their habitat to an exam room and back is an annual challenge for the care team — and for these turtles. It’s amazing how comforting a beach towel can be. Not wrapped around the torso, but placed over the heads of endangered green sea turtles Sunny and Azul. They’re 15-year-old brothers who were hatched and hand-raised in captivity in Southern California. It’s time for their annual physical exams at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. They can’t be checked underwater, so they are moved to an examination room where up to 13 staff members are prepping them for blood draws, X-rays, measurements, skin checks, eye exams and weigh-ins. Sunny is larger, and he is moved in a carrier built for rays. It’s two hoops with a net below and a cover above. Azul is in a turtle sling. It’s like a hammock, also with a cover. They are winched from their training pool, trucked to the nearby exam room then hand-carried inside. Once removed from their carriers, beach towels are placed on their heads to calm them, and for the most part, they accept what they must endure. These turtles are big and strong, and they use their flippers to try and scoot away from the poking and prodding. They’re restrained by many hands and soothing words are offered — turtles have good hearing. They can also feel the stroking of the tops of their thick shells. Dr. Kadie Anderson leads the team, draws the blood and interprets the X-rays. Sunny and Azul don’t have humanlike veins that pop to the surface. It means Anderson must find one in the neck. She quickly draws a vial of blood and hands it off. Digital X-rays give almost instantaneous results. Anderson says their “bones look good — bone density looks good.” The final check is for weight. Sunny comes in at 111 pounds, and his brother Azul just over 80. In Tacoma, they live in the 280,000-gallon Baja Bay exhibit. It’s the 77-degree saltwater home to tropical and subtropical marine creatures, including hammerhead sharks, angel fish, rays and a moray eel. Green sea turtles are endangered “mainly because of human impacts,” says Melissa Bishop, lead turtle caregiver. As they’re returned to their training pool, then back to the big habitat, Bishop says they could live another 65 years or more. “They’re extremely well cared-for, healthy turtles. Kids today can take their grandchildren to see them.”