Rehabilitated turtles return to the sea [UPDATED]Published 2:03pm Friday, November 12, 2010 Updated 7:04am Monday, November 15, 2010
SOMBRERO BEACH, MARATHON KEY, Fla. — Trixie sat on the white sand of Sombrero Beach, lifted her head and looked around at the dozens of people that watched her closely. But it wasn’t what she saw that changed her disposition. It’s what the 30-year-old, 200-pound Loggerhead sea turtle smelled.
The winds blew the warm air and smell of saltwater off the Atlantic Ocean and onto Sombrero Beach — an oceanside beach on Marathon Key, the Florida Keys’ second-largest community located about halfway between Key Largo and Key West.
Trixie was getting antsy. She was ready to return to the ocean.
“I think she can smell the ocean. She’s ready to go,” said Ryan Butts, administrator of The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Fla.
Trixie was one of two 200-pound female Loggerhead sea turtles returned to the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday, Nov. 7.
Trixie was rescued and brought to The Turtle Hospital about four months ago after sustaining a propeller strike to her shell off Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys.
“Fortunately she was not permanently injured or paralyzed,” Butts said.
Trixie’s counterpart — and the star of the day — was Wilma, who was rescued on Oct. 25, 2009. She was found to have propeller gashes in her shell and was wrapped in yards of fishing line.
But it was the fishing hooks in her mouth and intestines that posed the greatest threat to Wilma’s life, Butt’s said.
“She was found floating and entangled in fishing line,” said Tara Vickrey, a rehabilitation specialist with The Turtle Hospital..
“As soon as we got her back to the hospital, the first thing we noticed was the prop wounds down her back and the fishing line wrapped around the right front flipper.”
Hospital staff were able to untangle Wilma, which maybe saved the turtle from a life at the Turtle Hospital.
Fishing line can cut off circulation and paralyze a sea turtle’s flippers. It can take up to 600 years to biodegrade, Vickrey said.
But it was x-rays of Wilma that shocked hospital staff.
“We found seven hooks in her. A few of the hooks were oral and we were able to remove them by opening her mouth and removing them, but the others had gotten into her intestines,” Vickrey said. Two of the hooks found in her bowel were stainless steel J-hooks and designed not to biodegrade.
Veterinarian Dr. Douglas Mader performed surgery on Wilma on July 13, 2010. The wait was long because it took eight months for the hooks to move from the upper bowel to the lower bowel.
“We were able to remove her bowel through her hip, surgically remove the hooks and stitch her back together,” Vickrey said.
Wilma had spent the three months before her release in physical therapy learning to eat again.
The concern, Vickrey explained, is that when you open up the bowel and stitch it back up, scar tissue can form and actually shrink the bowel. That can be a problem because a Loggerhead turtle eats hard foods like lobster, shrimp and conch.
The last thing hospital staff wants is for a turtle to become impacted out in the wild because of the surgery.
“So we had to transition her from soft foods about a month after surgery to harder foods like shrimp and crab to keep that bowel going,” Vickrey said.
“Really, what we were waiting for was a big, solid poop, and we got that,” Vickrey said.
Like Wilma, Trixie also suffered a propeller strike. She was found floating along shore by boaters off Big Pine Key, Vickrey said.
“Her propeller wound was fresh. At first we were concerned that it had severed the spinal column and punctured a lung,” Vickrey said.
“Shockingly enough, after only a week in treatment, we were out at the hospital cleaning her flippers because some algae had grown on them — giving her a little pedicure — and she pulled her flippers back,” Vickrey said.
“It was astonishing she still had feeling in those flippers,” she said.