Animals do not make New Year’s resolutions, but if they did, stranded olive ridley sea turtles Thunder and Lightning would set the bar high. The endangered duo is rapidly hitting the recovery milestones set by the Oregon Coast Aquarium staff and veterinarians overseeing their care. Thunder, an 82-pound female, and Lightning, a 48-pound female, rose above their struggle with hypothermia to stabilize at their ideal mid-70s body temperatures in late December.
The younger turtle, Lightning, who arrived at the Aquarium with badly damaged eyes, seems to have set her sights on a successful recovery. “Lightning is eating enthusiastically and successfully tracking food with her right eye. Her left eye opened on January 3, and she tracked food with it too which was a pleasant surprise after her ultrasound in December,” said Evonne Mochon-Collura, Assistant Curator of Fishes and Invertebrates at the Aquarium.
Chris Wickliffe, DVM of Cascadia Equine Veterinary Clinic brought his mobile x-ray and ultrasound equipment to help the Aquarium assess Lightning’s health, free of charge. “We have the utmost appreciation for the veterinary community, and Oregonians as a whole, who have come together to help these animals in their time of need. Access to these specialized mobile diagnostic tools help us provide the best care possible,” said Jim Burke, the Aquarium’s Director of Animal Husbandry.
Wickliffe’s findings helped Aquarium staff better customize Lightning’s eye care, and confirmed she did not have a gastric blockage. On January 6, staff noted skin sloughing in the area around Lightning’s left eye – a common byproduct of the turtle’s past dehydration and hypothermia. The eye’s prognosis is currently unsure, but with one good eye the turtle is still a viable candidate for release to the wild.
Lightning’s ability to dive to the bottom of her pool signals that her positive buoyancy, caused by air trapped in her body, is dissipating. Buoyancy issues are a common ailment for stranded sea turtles, and can take months or years to dissipate. Thunder’s gastric systems started to function again as she warmed and last week she swallowed a piece of salmon, her first bite since she arrived at the Aquarium on December 21. The Aquarium’s staff offer her a variety of seafood and kelp several times a day, hoping to entice her appetite as she continues to heal.
The turtle made another breakthrough in her recovery – her buoyancy issue is completely resolved, and she is now able to snooze on the floor of her rehabilitation pool. “While we are pleased with their progress, the turtles’ are still in a tenuous condition. As in any medical recovery, conditions are subject to change, but the turtles’ behaviors are recorded day and night so we can act quickly when changes are observed,” Mochon-Collura said.
Olive ridley turtles from the Pacific coast of Mexico, where these turtles likely originated, are classified as endangered. If Thunder and Lightning’s recoveries are successful, they may be released in their warmer, native waters as early as this autumn. The Oregon Coast Aquarium and Seattle Aquarium are the only rehabilitation facilities in the Pacific Northwest authorized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 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 Oregon Coast Aquarium