Turtle readies for release


Turtle Gets Tagged from Wareham Courier on Vimeo

This article originally appeared in the July 31 edition of the Wareham Courier.

For Lavender, the road to recovery has been a long one. Next week the young Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle will be returned to the ocean after two years of rehabilitation at the National Marine Life Center and Woods Hole.

She – her gender is a matter of educated speculation amongst the staff – was found on Sandy Neck Beach in 2006. Stunned by the cold water, Lavender was frostbitten and very ill when she was found stranded on the beach in the fall.

On July 23, the staff at the National Marine Life Center was getting Lavender ready to finally return to the sea, fitting her with a satellite tracking device to better understand the migratory patterns of the Kemp’s Ridley turtle and Lavender’s own story.

“She should have a full recovery, and we’re expecting her to do well in the wild,” science director “Sea” Roger Williams said. “Our ability to follow her with this tag will be the way that we assess how successful we are as part of the rehabilitation.”

The turtle was originally scheduled for release last August, but a persistent case of pneumonia has dogged her for much of the past two years. While the injuries from her frostbite had diminished and hopes were high that she would be better in time to leave with several other turtles in 2007, her recovery didn’t progress as hoped.

Cold-stunned turtles become immune suppressed as their temperatures begin to drop and their bodies start to shut down, so they become particularly vulnerable to infection. That vulnerability persists long after they leave the water. Veterinarians try to increase the animal’s core temperature gradually over time to prevent a further shock to the system, but that can leave the turtles in a vulnerable state.

Occasionally the turtles will develop pneumonia or other infections a few months after they’ve been in rehabilitation, retarding their recovery. As a bacterial infection, pneumonia seems like a straightforward disease to monitor and control. In humans and other mammals, the disease can be diagnosed with chest x-rays and treated with a short course of antibiotics.

Turtles are a little more complicated.

“The carapace and plaster on their shell makes traditional x-rays less effective,” Williams said.

So in lieu of x-rays, veterinarians have to rely on CT scans to diagnose pneumonia in sea turtles. This can make getting the information a little more cumbersome than usual. As reptiles, turtles also have much slower metabolisms than mammals, so that course of antibiotics that was measured in days for a person might measure in weeks for a turtle.

Long treatment periods can be problematic in the rehabilitation of wild animals, since they might start to lose their edge and forget about what it’s like to look for their own food. According to Williams this is more of a problem for mammals than it is for reptiles and fish, who find it easier to just slip back into the water after being in captivity.

The tracking tag is similar to a GPS device, using satellites to triangulate its position, although it is much less accurate.

“We don’t need that kind of precision for knowing where they are,” Williams said.

The battery on the device will run for approximately one year if the researchers are lucky. Eventually it will fall off as the turtle grows and its shell grows with it, by the time Lavender reaches sexual maturity the device will be long gone and shouldn’t cause her potential mates to judge her too harshly.

Lavender will be released from Dowse's Beach in Osterville on July 31.