In December 2014, a tropical sea turtle was discovered by a couple on a Washington Beach. The olive ridley turtle drifted over a thousand miles north from her native waters off the Mexican coast. Hypothermic, emaciated and near death, the reptile was transported to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport for rehabilitation. In February, the U.S. Coast Guard flew Solstice to SeaWorld San Diego. KLCC’s Corinne Boyer traveled to San Diego to see how Solstice was doing.
When Solstice arrived at SeaWorld, she was outdoors in the park’s rehabilitation area in a pool by herself. Now the olive ridley turtle is inside an aquarium with two other rescued turtles. She swims over to rest on the rocks as we stand above the 12 foot deep tank.
Mike Price: “My name is Mike Price. I’m assistant curator of fishes here at SeaWorld San Diego. I’ve been with the park for 20 years. Currently, I help manage the team that takes care of the sharks, sea turtles and fishes in the park."
Boyer: “And can you tell me about Solstice and how you’ve been taking care of her?”
Price: “So her current weight is 51 pounds and for her that’s a pretty good size. Olive ridleys don’t get much bigger than 80 or so. Olive ridleys will happily eat whatever they get. Right now she gets two or three different types of fish plus clam. We like that because it’s a variety—in the same way I’m not only allowed to eat cheeseburgers—a variety is healthier.”
Solstice has access to a veterinarian and a team of caretakers. She recently had a CT scan which was used to try and understand her buoyancy problem.
Price: “The minute she stops swimming with her flippers she’ll pop back up to the surface like a cork. So what we’ll do just like with a sports injury like a rehabilitative process on your leg or arm, we will continue to allow her to work those muscles give her more options for diving down into depth.”
Price says Solstice was moved from the Oregon Coast Aquarium to SeaWorld because US Marine Fisheries requires all species of endangered sea turtles to be rehabilitated at SeaWorld. Ideally, Solstice will be moved back outside to continue her recovery, but currently every bit of space is filled with sea lion pups.
Steve Dunning: “My name is Steve Dunning. I’m one of the senior animal care specialists here. Right now we’re looking at just over 300 animals in the park right now. Our numbers are actually over 500. So this is a very unusual event right now.”
Boyer: “Why are there so many sea lion pups?”
Dunning: “What we are seeing this year is an event where those inshore fishes are not available to them. So they’ve got to travel further and in deeper water, but they don’t have the strength. But this year it seems like the fish are even further north, the water’s warmer--it’s possibly a pretty strong El Nino event."
Several trainers and caretakers say SeaWorld’s ultimate goal is to release rehabilitated animals like sea lions, dolphins and turtles back into the wild. However, dolphins and whales born in captivity are not candidates to be released, according to a SeaWorld spokeswoman.
In 1997, SeaWorld rescued a grey whale calf, J.J. She was 10-13 feet long weighed one thousand pounds and was in the care of Kevin Robinson.
Robinson: “She had been abandoned by her mom somewhere up in the Los Angeles area. Her rehabilitation took about 14 months and at the end of that 14 months we were able to release her back into the wild. When she left she was 19,000 pounds. She was 29 feet long and 19,000 pounds.”
Solstice the sea turtle is set to be released in August or September about 25 miles off the coast of San Diego. Mike Price thinks she has a great shot at living a long and healthy life.
Price: “Once a sea turtle gets to that Solstice size and bigger, the amount of predators gets reduced; it gets easier as you get bigger.”
Solstice’s caretakers plan to continue working out her buoyancy and fattening her up until the end of the summer. Her next journey will be her last with her caretakers when she’ll be transported by boat and released into the Pacific Ocean.