The Brevard Zoo Sea Turtle Healing Center has been very busy rescuing and rehabilitating more miniature “washback” baby turtles than ever previously recorded. All of these sweet little turtles were left helpless and stranded after Hurricane Nichole pushed them onto beaches with her vicious winds and subsequent waves.
Shortly after the baby turtles were discovered, the zoo jumped on the opportunity to take them in. What started out as 74 baby turtles quickly ballooned to over 366, of which 297 remained alive post-rescue. The numbers break down to 283 loggerheads, 10 green turtles and 4 hawksbill turtles. Experts believe the babies all hatched around one to two months ago. They were completely exhausted and in dire need when they landed on the beach.
The Sea Turtle Healing Center divided the surviving turtles into 2 large outdoor tanks. One tank is designated to struggling eaters and the other is designated to good eaters. All turtles are fed a combination of fish, shrimp and squid tentacles.
The pools and specially made tanks at the zoo’s sea turtle rehab center were completed back in 2014. With over 350 sea turtles under their care, the Sea Turtle Handling Center is fuller than ever before. To put this number into perspective, throughout all of 2015 the center cared for around 15 green turtles and 12 loggerhead washbacks.
Where Did The Turtles Come From?
Most of the rescue turtles were loggerheads, with some green and hawksbill turtles tossed into the mix. These reptiles were living in the Sargassum seaweed ecosystem, which is located 30 to 35 miles off of Brevard’s coast. Hurricane Nichole washed them away from their natural habitat and onto Brevard’s beaches, as well as other nearby beaches.
According to Melanie Stadler, the Brevard Zoo’s sea turtle program coordinator, “These turtles are probably anywhere from 1 month to 2 months old. And their one job as a tiny turtle is just to eat and grow. Eat anything they can eat. And they’re eating these things instead of food, so their bodies are weak.”
By ‘these things’ Stadler is referring to plastics, which have proven to be a big problem for rescued sea turtles. Sadly, most of the deceased sea turtles likely ingested plastic. When they don’t have access to their normal food they eat anything they can find. According to Shanon Gann, the zoo’s sea turtle rehabilitation assistant, “That sargassum collects those little pieces of plastic. Their bellies are full of that plastic, and they’re having a hard time passing it.”
Stadler said it’s not uncommon to see weak sea turtles wash onto shore during a strong storm surge. It wasn’t until after Hurricane Matthew passed that Hurricane Nichole pushed all of these sea turtles to our local beaches.
Stadler explained, “Once Matthew got by and all the rip currents and everything were gone, Hurricane Nicole’s just sitting out there offshore. And she’s just pushing that water back this way.”
More & More Turtles Poured In, Some Weighing Over 100 Pounds
Post-storm, volunteers continued to find more sea turtles and bring them into rescue centers such as the one at Brevard Zoo. The zoo is not the only place taking in itty-bitty turtles by the dozens. In fact, so many washed up on shore that the Volusia Marine Science Center is housing 400 to 500 of them.
With hundreds of turtles under their care, volunteers at the Brevard Zoo used non-toxic yellow nail polish to mark their shells for identification purposes.
Not all of the turtles are tiny. One volunteer found a starving 108-pound loggerhead turtle covered in barnacles. The massive turtle was in frightful need of a good meal and some tender love and care, all of which he received at the zoo’s turtle shelter.
What Are They Going To Do With All Of The Sea Turtles?
While volunteers and staff adore the cute sea turtles, they won’t become permanent zoo residents. Instead, they are to be released back into the wild.
In order to transport the sea turtles back to their natural habitat, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will launch a boat from Fort Pierce to the Sargasso Sea. Their natural habitat is typically found floating some 30 to 35 miles off the coast of Brevard.
Rescuers remain concerned about their long-term ability to survive. According to Shanon Gann, “With the washback situation, this is just a big wrench in their long-term plan. We don’t know what’s actually going to happen, if these guys will be strong enough and robust enough to survive.”
The hope is that at least a good percentage of baby turtles will survive, which will make rescue efforts worth it.