By Laura Todd
Photo: Comber the green sea
turtle being released into the Pacific Ocean off southern California, October
23, 2016, Photo credit: SeaWorld San Diego
I’ve been asked, “What
difference does one turtle make?”
It is absolutely true that
one turtle, in comparison to the entire world’s population, represents a small contribution
to that population. However, rehabilitating
that one individual from an endangered or threatened population can ensure
decades of offspring over a lifespan of up to 80 years.
Every turtle that strands
and is treated, successfully or not, teaches us something. The first lesson they teach us is how to
successfully respond, which is vital to know if we ever have a spill or
catastrophe that causes mass turtle strandings.
And erratic ocean conditions like algal blooms, El Niño, oxygen
depletion, and warming sea surface temperatures are resulting in greater
numbers of stranded turtles.
Additionally, many of the
turtles we have treated are juveniles or very young adults. This age group is crucial as the future
breeding population, and very little is known about them. The period between hatching and return to the
nesting area is known as the “lost years” because when the turtles leave their
nests, they are too tiny to track with conventional satellite equipment, and they
are seldom encountered until the females return to nest 20 or more years later
– unless we find them stranded. And
males are even more mysterious since they spend their lives at sea.
And each stranded turtle we
successfully release has a story with important lessons. A green sea turtle named Comber, stranded in
Canada in 2015 and was released in November 2016, the first ever successful sea
turtle rescue from Canada. With a
satellite tag attached, Comber was released to the sea southwest of San Diego.
He shocked us by heading straight back to Canada! When his transmitter finally failed on March
30, 2017, he was in British Columbia a few miles north of where he stranded,
showing signs of normal turtle activity.
He was able to swim over 1,500 miles in frigid waters in the dead of
winter, and based on another turtle released in 2011, it may be more common
than we know. Two turtles can tell a story, but we need more information to
develop a pattern.
Photo: Tucker in the
hyperbaric oxygen chamber at the Virginia Mason Center for Hyperbaric Medicine
with a team of experts that included Seattle Aquarium veterinarian Lesanna
Lahner and Jim Holm, MD, medical director of hyperbaric medicine. Photo credit:
Hopefully, the pattern will
fill in a bit more brightly this fall. Three sea turtles, stranded in December
2014 and 2015, are returning to the Pacific Ocean on September 11! All three will be equipped with satellite
transmitters to map their travels. And
all three have already provided us with valuable information, teaching us lessons
in treatment of cold-stranding and buoyancy.