Hundreds of sea turtle lovers turned out to watch last month when seven of the big reptiles were released back into the Atlantic Ocean after recuperative stays at the South Carolina Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital.
The event, at Isle of Palms County Park, coincided with the May 1 start of sea turtle nesting season. The event also highlighted the continuing success of the state’s only sea turtle rescue facility, which opened in 2004 at the aquarium along Charleston Harbor.
“It went great,” Elizabeth Nathan, aquarium spokesperson, said of the hospital’s largest one-day release of rehabilitated turtles, putting its total at more than 50 healed reptiles returned to nature so far.
The May event “was nothing short of fascinating,” said Kaye Lyon of Hilton Head, who recently toured the hospital, and whose employer, Sea Turtle Getaways, donates its booking fees to the program. Since starting up in 2005, the company has donated the $5 booking fee it charges for each reservation to the South Carolina Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital. Total donations approach $20,000, company owner Renee Taylor said.
“I didn’t just want to put that (booking fee) in my pocket,” Taylor said. “I wanted to do something good with it.”
The turtle hospital works with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to take in the sick or injured turtles found along the state’s 200 miles of beachfront or those rescued from near-shore waters. Transporting them is no small job — at the hospital, they have weighed in at up to 368 pounds.
The reptilian patients, who are all given names, suffer from infections, exposure to cold, gashes from boat strikes, ingestion of plastic trash and other potentially fatal problems. Hospital staffers administer intravenous fluids, vitamins, antibiotics and other needed medications. Turtles can even undergo X-rays and ultrasounds. “It’s a working hospital, just like a hospital for humans,” Nathan said. Instead of beds, though, each turtle gets its own water tank.
Dr. Shane Boylan, staff veterinarian, said, “It’s rewarding, but it’s a hard job at the same time.” Ailing turtles spend an average of seven to eight months at the hospital. When they are deemed well enough to survive on their own, they are taken to local beaches for return to the ocean.
All U.S. species of sea turtles are either threatened or in danger of extinction, and South Carolina law carefully protects the nests full of eggs that mother turtles lay on the state’s beaches from May through October. Ordinances, including one on Hilton Head, restrict outdoor lighting at beachfront properties so that hatchlings won’t be disoriented into crawling toward the land, instead of into the ocean where they belong.
Hospital visitors “fall in love with certain animals,” Nathan said, and loggerhead sea turtles — one of several species found in South Carolina waters — have been designated the state’s official reptile.
Hospital tours, she said, help build public support for turtle conservation. “That’s the goal: We have to inspire people to care about our natural world.”
South Carolina Aquarium
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily from March-August; 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. daily from September-February
Cost: General admission to the aquarium is $17.95 for ages 12 and up, $10.95 for ages 2-11, under 2 admitted free. For an added fee, aquarium visitors can take a behind-the-scenes tour of the sea turtle hospital. Those tours are $10 for adults and $5 for children 11 and under. They’re held at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Directions: Take U.W. 17 east to Lockwood Drive South in Charleston. Turn left at the Calhoun Street ramp. Turn right onto Calhoun Street/Robert S. Scarborough Bridge. Turn left onto Concord Street.
On the Web: scaquarium.org
Local law protects turtles
A law on Hilton Head Island requires that all outdoor lights on oceanfront properties be turned off after 10 p.m. from May through October so that hatchlings won’t be disoriented into crawling toward the land, instead of into the ocean where they belong.