Resilient turtle 'has a chance'


POSTED: Sunday, May 24, 2009

There's a human cheering squad on two islands waiting for a Disney moment—the sighting of a large green sea turtle with UAI painted on its shell returning from beyond the reef to its west Kauai shoreline habitat.

The 300-pound female turtle survived a severe slashing from a boat propeller and was brought to Oahu for surgery. It was released into Kaneohe Bay May 16 with what marine life experts believe is a good chance for survival. It's common for the turtles to range as far as 500 miles and to return to the same nesting area.

“;Boat strikes are essentially fatal,”; said Stacy Hargrove, research biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Marine Turtle Research Center in Honolulu. “;The wound gaped open an inch wide across its shell.”;

But she said the turtle “;seemed strong and feisty enough, more strength than we usually deal with. We believe she has a chance.”;

Its size indicates the creature is 50 years old or older.

Kailua veterinarian Robert Morris did the surgery.

“;It was a real deep wound from a propeller slash, but luckily it didn't go through the vertebrae; it missed the vital structure. It still had use of its back legs and had tail sensation.”;

Morris cleaned and disinfected the wound, then drilled holes and threaded stainless steel wire to close the gap.

“;I stabilized the shell, wired it back in place. I used dental acrylic to seal over the cracks. There was quite a bit of tissue damage, so I left an area open for drainage, for it to heal.”;

On contract with the NOAA turtle center, Morris sees about 60 green sea turtles each year that have been bitten by sharks, gotten entangled in fishing lines or have tumors, a deadly affliction which has spread in the population of turtles.

“;I don't see a lot of boat strikes; they are generally too torn up or are dead.”;

Marine biologist George Balazs of the Turtle Research Center inserted a microchip on a flipper and put the temporary marking, the last letters of Kauai, on its back to help humans spot it. Officials didn't allow a long convalescence. It was back in the water on the day after surgery.

“;To keep an animal that size in captivity isn't practical,”; said Morris. “;They don't like to eat in captivity, it's a downward spiral. It's better back in the ocean.”;

The veterinarian said the fact that the turtle was rescued soon after being injured was key to its potential survival.

The wounded animal was spotted May 13 by personnel from the U.S. Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands.

“;Nohili is a common spot for turtles to haul out,”; said Tom Clements, public affairs officer at the facility. “;The limu is thick on the reef and it's a beach not accessible to the public.”;

The Navy called Don Heacock, marine biologist with the state Division of Aquatic Resources who arranged to ship it to Oahu for surgery.

Step one of the emergency medical service effort required the efforts of five men, including the Barking Sands commanding officer, to wrestle the hefty turtle onto an all-terrain vehicle.

Clements said: “;Ding is my name for her but the state folks prefer we refer to her as UAI. We are all very eager to see her back here.”;