We take them all, big and small, and everything in between. Our admits over the past few months have ranged from quarter-sized hatchlings to the last “lady” to enter our building, a one-hundred-sixty pound loggerhead with the name “Eugenie.” Eugenie stranded north of here in Rodanthe on December 3rd with obvious shark bite injuries. STAR, the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation Center at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island took her in and named her Eugenie after Eugenie Clark, known by many as “The Shark Lady.” Clark spent much of her life researching sharks in an effort to rehabilitate their public image. Sharks, she believed, “had gotten a bad rap.” She and underwater explorer Sylvia Earle were role models and mentors for future generations of female marine biologists.
But back to Eugenie. When STAR asked if we could take Eugenie to alleviate their overcrowding situation we were happy to do so. STAR is the northern most rehab unit, and they are still caring for many cold stuns. The trip down from Roanoke on January 10th was iffy, as Eugenie had not been eating and was very fragile. Her shark bites were already beginning to heal, but she was exhibiting what we call “living dead syndrome.” It’s just what it sounds like: pieces of flesh decaying and sloughing off; lots of loose gelatinous tissue; exposed bones where the flesh had already disintegrated and one of the softest plastrons (belly) that we had ever dealt with. Moving her into the building took five volunteers who very carefully got her settled into a tank in our isolation room. After making sure she was as comfortable as possible we left her resting quietly overnight on a betadine-soaked towel hoping that she would unwind from the stress of the trip.
The next day Eugenie was put in enough water to float and was offered some soft-shell crab, because who doesn’t like soft shell crab! She devoured them, and an eating turtle is generally a turtle that will recover and be released. We found that she liked a little variety in her meals so in addition to the crab we added squid and fish. These days she’s getting three pounds in her breakfast bowl and is definitely putting on some weight. But all of that food has resulted in us finding some disturbing “treasure” in Eugenie’s tank: bits and pieces of very hard plastic which have been passing through her digestive tract. Could that have been part of the reason Eugenie got so sick in the first place? Unfortunately many sea turtles ingest the trash that ends up in our oceans and they pay the consequences.
Caroline Balch, our 2017 summer intern who has continued working with us while waiting to hear back on her vet school application is Eugenie’s primary caretaker. (And congrats to Caroline who recently found out she’s headed to NC State’s vet school later this summer – we’re so proud of you!) Caroline spends hours every day making sure her patient always has sparkling water, the tastiest food and the best care. After breakfast Eugenie gets a gentle soapy scrub followed by a betadine soak. After a soft rinse Caroline applies SSD (a salve often used to treat burn patients that also works great on traumatized turtle tissue) to all of the exposed wounds and necrotic areas. Caroline says Eugenie is happiest when she’s in water, and being dry-docked for over an hour could make for one agitated lady who might cause further injury to her very fragile body. So Caroline parks herself next to Eugenie’s tank the entire time, keeping her calm and sending positive vibes. She has a long road ahead of her even before she can move from isolation into our Sick Bay area.
Just this past week Eugenie had two special visitors, Amber and Maddie, two staff members from STAR who helped to care for Eugenie during her time there. With all of the TLC and positive energy she is getting from our volunteers and her former caregivers at STAR she will continue her long journey to recovery.
Our hospital is still closed for tours for the next few months, but stay tuned for not only an April opening date but also information on Topsail Turtle Project training. Although it’s unlikely that a turtle could have survived the winter with record cold temps it’s still possible. If you see a turtle on the beach or in the marshy area that is not moving please do not assume that it’s dead; it could be cold stunned. If it’s a little guy gently pick it up and relocate it to a car, garage or other unheated area of your home. DO NOT try to warm it up – the shock of a quick temperature change could send it into shock. We’ll send our staff out to rescue any and all turtles, big and small when you give us the word. Call one of the following numbers if you suspect you’ve come across a local cold-stunned turtle: Hospital contacts are Terry Meyer @ 910-470-2880 and Jean Beasley @ 910-470-2800. We will also pick up on the hospital line (910-329-0222) if the call comes into us early in the day. The state of NC has a stranding hotline that picks up 24/7: 252-241-7367