An endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle, Lepidochelys olivacea, is currently under intensive care at the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s animal rehabilitation unit. The tropical reptile was spotted by a beach-goer in Bob Straub State Park at dawn on Thursday, December 10. As any member of the public should, they did not disturb the animal, stayed nearby and called qualified animal care professionals for help. Kevin Clifford, the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s Curator of Fishes & Invertebrates, and biologist Daniel Elbert of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, immediately headed north through Thursday’s storm to assess the situation.
From the road, the pair contacted Shawn Stephensen, a wildlife biologist for the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, who was surveying geese near the State Park and asked that he get to the turtle as quickly as possible. “The rising tide was quickly flooding beach access, and if Shawn had not collected the turtle when he did it might have been impossible to get it out,” Elbert said. Stephensen rendezvoused with Clifford and Elbert in Lincoln City. The turtle’s location alone indicated something was amiss, as the Pacific Northwest has much colder water and is far north of sea turtles’ typical range. Turtles that wash ashore in the Northwest require immediate care and should not be pushed back into the ocean.
The sub-adult turtle arrived at the Aquarium conscious with swelling and blood around its eyes. Staff rinsed sand off the turtle, checked its vital signs and lubricated its shell to help it stay hydrated. At initial assessment, the 48 pound turtle was hypothermic, with a body temperature of just 57 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 18 degrees below normal. “It is strong, but may have sustained head injuries in the surf, so its prognosis is quite guarded at this point,” said Evonne Mochon-Collura, Assistant Curator of Fishes & Invertebrates who oversees the Aquarium’s rehabilitation of fishes, invertebrates and reptiles. (click on the image above to view a video of the turtle)
Mochon-Collura contacted veterinarian Dr. Steen Smith, who works closely with Aquarium staff, for a house call. A plan for the turtle’s care was outlined and medical treatment was initiated Thursday afternoon. The turtle’s eyes were rinsed and treated with an antibiotic ointment. A hydration bath of salt water mixed with fresh water, matching the turtle’s body temperature, also provided a chance to clear sand from its eyes, nose and under its shell.
The Aquarium’s team is working around the clock to administer fluids and slowly raise the turtle’s body temperature, which must be done gradually to keep it from going into shock. Despite treatment, there is still a significant chance the turtle will succumb to its injuries, and these efforts are just the beginning of a long journey to recovery. The best case scenario is that it will need several months of rehabilitation before it is healthy enough to be transferred south for eventual release in its warmer, native waters.
The Oregon Coast Aquarium is the only rehabilitation facility in Oregon permitted to provide the specialized care sea turtles require. Olive ridley turtles are classified as endangered so its recovery is important to the future success of the species. “Rehabilitation returns reproductively viable individuals to the wild breeding population that otherwise would not have survived, which contributes to species recovery. Rehabilitation efforts also help us prepare for catastrophic events such as oil spills or disease by establishing clinical familiarity with listed species,” Elbert said.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service urges anyone who finds a sea turtle on the beach to contact the Oregon State Police Wildlife Hotline at (800) 452-7888 to ensure appropriate transport and care of the animal. The Oregon Coast Aquarium is open every day this winter from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information, visit aquarium.org or call 541-867-FISH.
Information and photos provided by the Oregon Coast Aquarium