An olive ridley sea turtle, Lepidochelys olivacea, that washed up in last week’s storms outside Pacific City is showing small signs of improvement at the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s animal rehabilitation unit. “Lightning,” named for the coastal lightning and thunderstorm that coincided with her stranding, graduated to a new pool on December 16. The tropical reptile warmed from 57 degrees when she arrived at the Aquarium on December 10, to 68 degrees on Wednesday. Her new pool measures eight feet across, and is filled with warm sea water that matches Lightning’s body temperature.
“The goal today is to see how she does swimming at a deeper depth. She continues to clear sand from her body while she is in water, and we wanted to get her in a watery environment full time where she is most comfortable,” said Evonne Mochon-Collura, Assistant Curator of Fishes and Invertebrates. Lightning was first introduced to very shallow water, sleeping in as little as 2 inches overnight to ensure she could breathe if she fell into a deep sleep without the risk of drowning. Her move to 23 inch deep water signals the rehabilitators’ confidence in her strength, but also confirmed that she has an air bubble trapped in her shell – a common ailment for stranded sea turtles.
The graduation marks a step forward in the turtle’s rehabilitation journey, and opens the dry triage tank for another patient, if needed. Lightning passed another recovery milestone this week when she opened one of her eyes, which were both swollen shut on arrival, but it appears to be extremely damaged. “When turtles strand opportunistic seabirds, hungry for an easy meal, sometimes peck at their soft tissue, which may have happened to Lightning’s right eye,” said Jim Burke, the Aquarium’s Director of Animal Husbandry. The Aquarium’s staff hopes when Lightning’s left eye opens that it will be in better condition.
“The benchmarks our veterinarians set for us are to confirm that she can eat, pass waste, and get her body temperature to 75 degrees. If she is successful with all three, then she is cleared from triage and ready to be moved to a longer-term rehabilitation facility that can offer her specialized care for her eyes,” Mochon-Collura said.
Lightning chewed on a sardine the Aquarium’s team offered after settling into her new surroundings, indicating she might have the appetite to pass that first benchmark in the next few days. Despite Lightning’s improvement, her prognosis remains quite guarded, and will at a minimum require months of rehabilitation before she is healthy enough to be transferred south for eventual release in her warmer, native waters.
Olive ridley turtles from the Pacific coast of Mexico, where Lightning likely originated, are classified as endangered, so this sub-adult female’s recovery is important to the future success of the species. Lightning’s rescue was possible thanks to Timothy James Ebarb, a resident of Pacific City, who spotted the turtle last Thursday morning, and did exactly what wildlife authorities advise. Turtles that wash ashore in the Northwest require immediate care and should not be pushed back into the ocean.
“When I went over the hill and spotted something in the sand by a bunch of logs when I got down there it was a turtle,” Ebarb said. Ebarb contacted the Aquarium, and then stayed with the turtle on the stormy beach for over two hours as he waited for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to pick it up. “We appreciate the assistance of Mr. Ebarb and the public for notifying us of any stranded turtle,” said Laura Todd, Newport Field Office Supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “Without the help of the public and the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Lightning and other sea turtles stranded on our beaches would perish.”
The Oregon Coast Aquarium and Seattle Aquarium are the only rehabilitation facilities in the Pacific Northwest authorized to provide the specialized care sea turtles require. 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