Return to the Sea: Rescued Sea Turtles Released Into the Wild

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Sea Turtle, Green Sea Turtle, SUP Examiner, Matt Chebatoris, Long Beach, Aquarium of the Pacific

The Aquarium of the Pacific Rehabilitates and Releases Rescued Sea Turtles

I’ve been told sea turtles are somewhat ubiquitous in Hawaii. Here on the West Coast, however, they are not frequently encountered. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I had the good fortune to find and rescue a green sea turtle during a spontaneous excursion up the Ballona Creek in Los Angeles one evening last July. The green sea turtle, an endangered species I subsequently learned, was taken to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California for rehabilitation.  

Sea Turtle, Green Sea Turtle, SUP Examiner, Matt Chebatoris, Long Beach, Aquarium of the Pacific
The hook is clearly visible on the x-ray taken by the Aquarium of the Pacific.

My wife and I had visited the aquarium not long after we moved to Los Angeles back in 2008. It is an amazing facility and I’m not sure why we had not been back since our initial visit other than the fact that there are so many new things to see and do in the area. At the invitation of the Aquarium of the Pacific, we had the opportunity to spend an informative evening at the aquarium and were able to meet the head veterinarian, Dr. Lance Adams, responsible for rehabilitating and caring for a wide range of animals at the Aquarium of the Pacific from the colorful lorikeets to sharks and marine mammals, and of course turtles. We learned that based on the level of rust which had accumulated on the hook lodged in the turtle’s throat it had possibly been stuck in Ballona Creek for as long as two weeks before I found it. I say “it”, as the gender of a green sea turtle is not determined until the turtle matures, which can be anywhere between the age of 10-15 years, on average. While at the aquarium we had the opportunity to see the turtle swimming freely in a rehabilitation tank behind the scenes – the recuperating animals are not on public display – and had the chance to see some of the impressive inner workings of the aquarium.

The turtle I found was estimated to be around 5-7 years old and other than the nasty hook in its throat it appeared to be in good condition. The pattern on its shell was amazing and looked like a picture perfect example of a sea turtle shell.

Sea Turtle, Green Sea Turtle, SUP Examiner, Matt Chebatoris, Long Beach, Aquarium of the Pacific
Relaxing in the rehab tank.

The recovery period lasted a bit longer than the aquarium’s veterinarian team had initially anticipated due to the tissue damage caused by the hook. Fortunately, the turtle hung tough and fought through the ordeal to make a full recovery, even gaining 4-5 lbs in the process I was told! In comparison to a second green sea turtle undergoing rehabilitation during the same period, it turns out “my turtle” was not a very picky eater and enjoyed a protein rich diet of thawed shrimp and crab, among other treats a young turtle needs

Return to the Sea

I had been in contact with the aquarium since our visit and was pleased to receive an email from Marilyn Padilla, the Director of Public Relations at the Aquarium of the Pacific, announcing that the turtle was fully recovered and was scheduled to be released, along with another rescue turtle, on Tuesday, 1 November. Marilyn invited me down to watch the release and I readily accepted the invitation.

We met around mid-morning at the aquarium where I was introduced to some additional members of the veterinary team and a representative from the National Marine Fisheries Services who would oversee the release. The turtles were wheeled out in two large heavy-duty wheelbarrows with a small entourage of aquarium staff in tow. After the turtles were loaded into a large white crate on the stern of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s boat we made our way out into the main harbor and headed south towards the mouth of the San Gabriel River.

It turns out, the water near the mouth of the San Gabriel River is warmer than the surrounding area and is the home to a colony of green sea turtles. The colony is a bit of a quirk of nature as green sea turtles prefer warmer tropical to subtropical water and tend to not venture further north than Mexico.  We waited for the go-ahead from the Marine Fisheries representative who was responsible for assessing the suitability of the location based on the water temperature before spinning the boat around and positioning it for the turtles’ release.

Sea Turtle, Green Sea Turtle, SUP Examiner, Matt Chebatoris, Long Beach, Aquarium of the Pacific
Ready to take the plunge!

The team draped what was essentially a padded exercise mat off the stern and allowed each turtle the thrill of a mini slip & slide ride into the ocean. By all appearances, both turtles felt right at home and quickly disappeared beneath the waves as they darted away from the boat with a sense of freedom and purpose.

It was an amazing feeling to have been a part of the turtle’s recovery and to have the opportunity to see it through from the perilous beginnings back in Ballona Creek to the happy ending when it was released back into the wild. We all enjoyed the boat ride back to the harbor with a sense of accomplishment at having each played a role in the rehabilitation of the animals. It was nice, and is something I’ll always remember.

For additional information about the Aquarium of the Pacific, visit: www.aquariumofpacific.org Wherever you may be, make the effort this winter to visit your local aquarium and support their work. It’s a great way to make an impact on the lives of marine wildlife and help preserve the aquatic environment we all enjoy.

See you on the water!

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