Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)
Stranding Location: Yawkey Wildlife Preserve, SC
Arrival Date: 03/07/2015
Weight: 216 kg (~476 lb.)
Yawkey Wildlife Preserve staff discovered this large, lethargic leatherback stranded in the surf on one of the Preserve’s remote islands. This is the first time a stranded leatherback has been found alive along South Carolina’s coast, and this particular turtle was extremely lucky to have been observed as s/he stranded along an extremely remote and nearly inaccessible island. Our vet, Dr. Shane Boylan, partnered with the SC Department of Natural Resources and Yawkey Wildlife Preserve staff to rescue and transport this massive turtle to our sea turtle hospital.
This leatherback was so large that s/he exceeded the weight limit of our hospital’s sea turtle scale; due to this, we initially estimated her weight at around 500 lb. The initial health assessment included a complete physical exam (no abnormalities) and blood work. Leatherbacks have such robust necks that our vet was unable to pull blood via the dorsal cervical sinus typically accessible from the top of the neck, a method we employ with great success on our hard-shelled sea turtle species. We even used a portable ultrasound to attempt to visualize the sinus through the thick neck tissues, but the major vessels are housed so deeply in the neck that this was unsuccessful. Instead, Dr. Boylan pulled blood from a large vessel in the tail. In-house blood work revealed mostly acceptable values; however, the turtle was hypoglycemic with a glucose level of 33 mg/dl. We administered 1050 cc of 5% dextrose subcutaneously to treat the mild hypoglycemia, an injectable antibiotic called ceftazidime to treat potential bacterial infections, injectable calcium gluconate, and injectable vitamins B and C. The leatherback was then housed in a tank of shallow salt water just slightly larger than she was.
In order to accurately weigh this leatherback, we used a creatively-designed sling composed of a fishing net lined with a perforated tarp to gently lift her from her tank with an engine hoist. Still suspended in the sling, her weight (476 pounds) was obtained using a hanging fish scale. Medical treatments were continued and, by Wednesday, March 11th, this leatherback was clearly feeling better and was alert and vigorous in her movements.
The small tank that limited this leatherback’s movements was a critical component of our success in rehabilitating this animal. Leatherbacks have very sensitive external tissues and will easily damage themselves in collisions with tank walls. Because our tank limited this turtle’s ability to build up speed before coming in contact with the sides of the tank, she sustained only a few very minor abrasions while in our care. We surrounded her tank with a portable divider for the duration of her 5-day stay in our hospital to minimize her exposure to people; a very small window in the divider at eye level allowed visitors to see her but prevented her from viewing visitors.
Physiologically, leatherbacks are designed to tolerate colder waters than other sea turtle species and so, in preparation for her release, we installed a chiller to begin slowly reducing her tank water temperature to match that of our coastal waters, approximately 60 degree Fahrenheit. On Thursday, March 12th, we employed the sling and engine hoist method again to gently transfer the leatherback from her tank into a custom-built wooden box fully lined with soft foam. SCA and SCDNR staff loaded the wooden box into a pickup truck and drove Yawkey to the Isle of Palms County Park beach for release. This beach is operated by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission and we often partner with them for public sea turtle releases. The box was an amazing tool for release because all four sides were hinged to lay flat when open, allowing Yawkey to crawl from the box floor directly into the surf of the Atlantic Ocean without assistance. Leatherbacks are phenomenally strong swimmers and so, once she was able to navigate over a sand bar just off the beach, she quickly disappeared from sight as she swam offshore.
March 12, 2015
Isle of Palms County Park, Isle of Palms, SC. Watch Yawkey’s release here.