This month, on beaches up and down the U.S. East Coast, tens of thousands of newly-hatched loggerhead sea turtles are emerging from the sand and crawling into the Atlantic. Very few of these baby turtles will survive, but a hospital in Georgia is trying to improve their chances.
Jekyll Island, Georgia, is best known as a summer vacation spot. But it’s also an important rehabilitation destination for hundreds of sick or injured sea turtles that wash up on Atlantic coast beaches each year.
“Twenty percent of the cases are boat strike-related injuries,” says Terry Norton, a veterinarian who is director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. “We get fishing line and fishhook-related injuries. There’s a disease called fibropapilloma, caused by the herpes virus, that can cause tumors on the skin. We get some real debilitated turtles.”
Many have survived encounters with predators like sharks that can bite off a turtle’s flipper or crack its shell.
The operating room at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center looks like one you’d see at a major medical center for humans.
There are bright surgical lights, stainless steel tables and an x-ray machine. The doctors and nurses wear blue surgical scrubs. This morning, Norton is treating Ziva, a 68-kilo female loggerhead turtle.
“This is a turtle with a boat strike injury to the head and to her shell,” he says. “She actually had a little abscess in the skull. These little Velcro patches are for putting weights because she floats asymmetrically so that helps her dive a little better and get around a little better.”
Norton estimates that Ziva is 10-to-12 years old, which is young for a turtle. He says rehabilitating these injured or sick juveniles is vital to maintaining the worldwide sea turtle population.