Des Moines – Rescued Shi Shi sea turtle is back in swimming, steadily improving toward good health and releasing hope into the wild.
Shi Shi, a green sea turtle, was on the verge of death when a member of the Mecca tribe found the turtle on November 16, washed up ashore at Shi Shi (pronounced Shy Shy) beach. The tortoise has been blown off course and would have died had it not been for the quick thinking and attention of so many people, from the tribe to federal agencies and many nonprofit organizations.
The next day, the turtle was taken to the Seattle Aquarium, which mobilized a staff around the clock to stabilize and warm the turtle very slowly, no more than one degree every four hours, to avoid shocking the turtle’s system.
The prognosis for the turtle’s survival was dire at first. Caitlin Hadfield, chief aquarium veterinarian, declared the tortoise to be “often less mortal.” But with the intensive care of the aquarium, the tortoise rebounded.
So much so that on Tuesday the tortoise was taken to an animal hospital and rehabilitation center. There, on Thursday, the turtle had its first comprehensive physical examination since moving.
The first step was to catch the turtle from a heated outer tank at the Animal Hospital and Rehabilitation Center run by the non-profit organization SR3 in Des Moines.
Not so easy, now the tortoise is lively, gracefully sweeping across the tank with a few swipes of the fins, bouncing to the surface for a sip of air.
So when two volunteers snuck into the tank, SR3 CEO Casey McClain reminded them to face the tortoise’s head away: Green turtles have a big bite.
Using heave-ho, they lowered the turtle from the tank onto a pillow, then lifted it back onto a cart to drive the turtle to the hospital. It was time for an X-ray, an ultrasound, a round of antibiotics and fluids, and even some medication to get the turtle’s intestines fresh.
The tortoise shell is sensitive to the fingertips, and the tortoise was awake and not sedated throughout the procedures. The tortoise shell was smooth to the touch, with plates delineated by spurs. The legs were shiny with a crust of skin, like a snake.
The staff treated Shi Shi with kindness. But nevertheless, a thermometer is inserted, well, it always goes if it is not in the mouth, the turtle notices it like everyone else. Who can blame the turtle for trying to fin?
But soon that moment passed, and the tortoise rested again waiting for the numerous actions of reptilian calmly, which it acquired in about 100 million years on our planet as a species, Chelonia Midas.
The volunteers kept the tortoise — which would normally never be out of water — well hydrated, either on the shell or the fins, with the same gel used for the ultrasounds, because it wouldn’t penetrate the shell’s keratin.
What a shell, culminating in a body perfectly shaped to loosen through the water. Each tortoise’s characteristic is shaped for fluid dynamics, from the broad shell at the top, the narrowing back, triangular shape of the head, to the sweeping arch of the front fins.
In the wild, sea turtles are strong swimmers, sailing at speeds of about mph, and traveling more than 15 mph in sprints.
They can hold their breath for hours while they nap on the sea floor. They are called green turtles not because of their shell, but because of the layer of green fat under the skin, from primarily eating seaweed and plants.
No one really knows where this tortoise comes from, but the tortoise – its gender is unknown – is most likely a population that nests on the beaches of Michoacan, Mexico. These turtles follow warm currents even off the coast of Washington. But this is where the problems can begin, if there is a big storm.
During the last cycle of storms, this turtle was probably brought ashore in the cold waters of Washington. Turtles cannot adjust their body temperature and are so cold that they cannot eat or swim.
Veterinarian Kristen Parker Graham started a series of X-rays, images instantly appearing on a laptop computer. Beautiful, streamlined tortoise hands suddenly appeared, like the long versions of our hands.
X-rays showed pneumonia in the lungs – very common in animals with a cold. The adorable swimming ultrasound photos also revealed good news – the tortoise’s heart was pumping well, the kidneys looked good and there was little movement in the gut.
The wounds on the turtle’s skin heal well, which is a good sign, as it shows that the immune system is working and that the turtle has enough energy to heal. Parker Graham cut some infected flesh in a wound near a fin, and smeared it with honey, a natural antibiotic.
“She’s looking really good, really good, and she’s gotten really better, she’s recovering really well,” Parker Graham said.
The biggest concern is that the tortoise is still barely eating.
To keep the turtle hydrated, the care team administered a mixture of fluids including electrolytes, using a large syringe attached to a tube and a needle to insert under the turtle’s skin.
The team also planned to give the turtle juice from oyster butter and herring through a feeding tube. Meanwhile, the turtle’s tank was cleaned, refilled with water, and warmed.
The turtle’s body temperature, which was only 48 degrees when it reached the aquarium, was restored to completely normal by the aquarium team. The thermometer registered 78.2 degrees while checking the tortoise: still fine.
The tortoise is not yet an adult, and weighs about 40 pounds. Its sleeve is less than two feet long.
The plan now is to keep a close eye on the turtle, and to continue taking his pneumonia, wound healing, and gastrointestinal medications. Caregivers will continue to serve a buffet of oysters, herring, organic lettuce, cucumbers, and peppers.
The tortoise is still fragile, said Parker Graham and McClain, and at any time there could be a turn for the worse. But if Shi Shi continues to improve steadily, the next stop in about a month is SeaWorld in San Diego, then released back into the wild.
The tortoise actually has its imprint inside the beach where it hatches and is dashed into the sea, beginning the journey of life, now over a decade ago. Everyone who helps the turtle takes root for this journey to continue – all the way back to the sea.
But first, Shi Shi must start eating.
Anyone encountering a sea turtle on the beach should immediately contact the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 866-767-6114. Do not touch the turtle. Keep children and pets away. Call right away, it’s a life or death situation, your turtle needs immediate care.