If you have visited the South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital in the past year, then you have met Briar. This large loggerhead is greeted daily with oohs and ahhs from guests due to her large size but they are even more captivated after hearing her story. Briar stranded on the beach in Myrtle Beach late May of last year, extremely debilitated and barely clinging to life. At admittance, Sea Turtle Rescue staff found that she was emaciated and severely anemic, and her vital signs were dismal. She was also covered in barnacles as a result of her lethargic state while in the ocean. In the first week, her prognosis of survival was questionable, and staff came to work each morning with fingers crossed that she was still alive.
Over the next six months, Briar responded well to the medical treatments and gained over 50 pounds, which put her back into healthy weight range. But staff and volunteers had been seeing a change in her feeding behavior. Once a vivacious eater, Briar had begun to have problems finding her diet of assorted fish, biting at a single piece several times before actually consuming it. Catching live blue crabs became an impossible task, whereas just weeks prior, she had been catching and eating multiple crabs a day. Staff Veterinarian Dr. Boylan performed a physical exam to take a closer look at her eyes and found that Briar had developed cataracts. Seeking a second opinion, Dr. Boylan reached out to Dr. Ann Cook, who specializes in veterinary ophthalmology at Animal Eye Care of the Lowcountry. Upon her visit to the Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital, Dr. Cook confirmed that Briar had cataracts in both eyes.
After several months of researching cataracts in marine animals, a date was set for Briar’s surgery. On Friday, April 25, Dr. Cook and staff performed cataract surgery on both of Briar’s eyes. The damaged lenses were successfully removed by a procedure called phacoemulsification, a process by which the lens is emulsified with an ultrasonic handpiece and aspirated from the eye. The weeks following surgery consisted of an intense regimen of drops and ointments administered multiple times each day, which required removing the 180-pound loggerhead from her tank each time. Improvements with Briar’s vision were apparent to staff just a week after surgery as we watched Briar locate and consume small pieces of fish in her tank with ease. Three weeks post-surgery, Dr. Cook removed sutures from both eyes and was very pleased with Briar’s healing. But the big test was still to come. Briar needed to be able to catch live blue crabs before being considered for release. For a few weeks, Briar seemed to be suffering from a case of stage fright because she seemed to prefer feeding on the crabs at night while no one was watching. We were finally able to watch Briar successfully catch the live crabs, and we knew then that she would be able to survive in the wild on her own!
A special thanks to the folks involved in her rescue, namely Brett Weinheimer and Linda Mataya from the North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol. Also a huge thanks to Dr. Anne Cook and her staff who donated their time, expertise and resources! Partnerships such as these strengthen the Sea Turtle Rescue Program and ultimately give sick and injured sea turtles a better chance of survival.
The Sea Turtle Rescue Team