SARASOTA — The newest visitor to the infirmary at Mote Marine in Sarasota weighs in at nearly half a ton and extends almost six feet from nose to tail.
The 800-pound Leatherback sea turtle — the largest reptile and first of its species ever treated at Mote — is on the mend at the marine lab after arriving from South Florida late Tuesday.
The female turtle has serious injuries and spent much of Wednesday swimming in circles in a tank as Mote scientists attempt to nurse her back to health.
The Leatherback, the largest and most endangered of all sea turtles, has been receiving around-the-clock care by Mote staff in a controlled medical pool since it arrived in critical condition, said Mote spokeswoman Hayley Rutger.
The mammoth turtle has a deep gash on its left rear flipper and cuts on its right side and face.
The turtle on Wednesday was in a harness and swimming circles in about 18,000 gallons of water; the straps prevent it from hitting the walls, Rutger said.
“They do have kind of delicate skin compared to other sea turtles,” she said, adding that Leatherbacks dive the deepest of all turtles and are not used to boundaries.
Leatherbacks, which can reach 1,500 pounds, do not have hard shells. Rather, their carapace is bony and covered with a rubbery skin, Rutger said.
Eve Haverfield, president and founder of nonprofit group Turtle Time, said even crawling on sand can cut the Leatherback’s soft skin.
Haverfield was one of more than a dozen people who helped rescue the stranded 5-foot-long turtle from Big Hickory Island near Bonita Springs Tuesday.
The turtle was coaxed into a boat and then covered in a tarp and hoisted by crane into a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission truck to be taken to Mote.
“Lots of motivated people took great pains to rescue this animal,” Haverfield said of park rangers, wildlife experts and volunteers.
Haverfield, who monitors sea turtles in southern Lee County, said the turtle’s cut likely came from a boat propeller.
Mote has not determined the cause or extent of the turtle’s injuries. Blood samples and X-rays have been taken, but results were not immediately available.
“We wish her the best and hope to release her back into the ocean in a few days,” Rutger said. “It’s very neat to see and try to help a species that is so endangered.”
Details of the turtle’s release have not been mapped out, but it may be set free far offshore to prevent another stranding, Rutger said.
The turtle was first spotted on a Collier County beach on Monday trudging in circles, a behavior common after nesting.
Leatherbacks rarely nest in Southwest Florida, and it is not nesting season. The species mostly nests on the state’s East Coast, the Caribbean or Pacific Ocean beaches.
It is unlikely the turtle nested in Collier County, Haverfield said, but a Leatherback did nest on Sanibel Island in Lee County last season.
In March 2000, an 800-pound Leatherback turtle was rescued from Holmes Beach with a seriously injured flipper. The bone in the turtle’s flipper was broke, and a Clearwater veterinarian had to amputate.
To help Mote Marine care for the turtle and other marine life, donations can be made at www.mote.org/hospitalhelp.
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E-mail Halle Stockton at email@example.com
-- Contributed by Nadine Slimak, Mote public relations manager
The leatherback sea turtle rescued from Big Hickory Island in Lee County on Tuesday remains in critical condition at Mote Marine Laboratory today. The turtle has been placed in a medical pool and appears to be in stable but guarded condition — however, as with all critically ill animals, her condition could change at any time.
The nearly 800-pound turtle was brought to Mote by Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission after it stranded Tuesday. Since its arrival at Mote, veterinary staff have taken blood samples, are providing supportive medical care and are monitoring her condition around the clock. The turtle has been placed in a harness in the medical pool to help allow it to swim comfortably and to keep her from rubbing her delicate skin on the sides of the pool. Leatherback turtles are a pelagic - deep water - species, and un-used to boundaries or walls, making it difficult to treat them in a confined setting. Rehab is rarely attempted with this species.
Experts are always reluctant to bring this species of turtle in for treatment, according to Dr. Andy Stamper, Mote veterinarian. “Plan A was to get the animal back in the water, Plan B was to bring it into the hospital," Stamper said. The turtle could be released within days, he said.
Special thanks goes to Eric Kolek at Sarasota's American Canvas who quickly constructed a harness for this extremely large turtle on Tuesday. While our goal is to release this turtle as soon as possible, Mote is also seeking donations to help support the medical care of this animal.
“This turtle is larger than other animals — even dolphins — that we usually treat at Mote," Stamper said. “That means we have to use larger amounts of things like antibiotics to treat her and that costs are higher."
To make a donation to help support the turtle's care, please go to www.mote.org/hospitalhelp.
About this leatherback turtle:
The animal is an adult female nearly 5 feet long and weighs a whopping 787 pounds. She has a wound near where her left rear flipper attaches to her body and some abrasions on her right side and face. The animal does have a tag, so information about her previous nesting activity should be available later today.
■ Leatherback turtles are the largest living reptiles in the world and are the largest and most endangered of all sea turtle species.
■ Leatherbacks don't have shells like loggerheads and other sea turtles. Instead, their carapace is bony and covered with a firm, rubbery skin. Leatherbacks are commonly found in deep ocean waters and are the most migratory and wide ranging of all the sea turtle species. They nest on beaches around the world, with the largest nesting populations found on the coasts of northern South America and west Africa. There are minor nesting populations in the U.S. Caribbean (primarily Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) and in southeast Florida. Leatherbacks are rarely seen along Southwest Florida's Gulf coast - although a leatherback nest did hatch on Sanibel Island (Lee County) in August 2009.
■ Experts estimate most leatherback nesting populations have declined by at least 80 percent. The largest declines for leatherbacks have occured in the Pacific, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Trends of leatherback populations in the Atlantic aren't as clear; some Caribbean nesting populations seem to be growing, but they remain much smaller than Pacific populations were less than a decade ago. Nesting on U.S. beaches has shown an upward trend in recent years.