June 24,  2008

‘Scotty’ the sea turtle goes home


Sunday evening, June 22, was a big night for “Scotty,” a large female loggerhead turtle who, after months of rehabilitation, was finally going home.

She returned to the sea on a warm and breezy evening at the Lighthouse Beach in Buxton, not far from where she was rescued five months before. A large crowd of more than 100 well-wishers was on hand to cheer for a safe journey.

On Jan. 17, the National Park Service received a call from Scott’s Boatyard in Buxton. A large loggerhead was stranded in the harbor near the yard.

Ranger Michelle Baker, the Park Service’s head sea turtle biotechnician, and her husband, Tyler, responded to the call. The turtle was still alive and despite its mangled flippers, was still trying to swim as best it could, but it was barely hanging on.

Michelle, Tyler, and some other helpful volunteers, including wildlife rehabilitator Lou Browning of Frisco, spent a lot of time in the icy waters that day, trying to get the turtle out, which proved to be a memorable experience in and of itself.

“It was freezing cold and pouring down rain,” Michelle remembers. “It was one of those adventures you never quite forget.”

After they succeeded in getting the badly injured turtle, “Scotty,” as they affectionately called her, out of the water, they took her to the North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo to begin diagnosis and rehabilitation, hoping for the best.

The loggerhead turtle is the most common sea turtle in North Carolina and is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. To find a stranded loggerhead alive is rare, and it is an exciting challenge for the Park Service and the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island to rescue and rehabilitate the animals.

Baker says that it’s hard to estimate the age of a loggerhead, but her best guess is that the turtle is between 15 and 20 years old and not yet sexually mature enough to nest.  Loggerheads usually don’t nest until they are 30 to 35 years old.  Scotty weighed about 130 pounds when she was rescued.  On the day of her release, Baker estimated her weight at 150.

Scotty’s road to freedom was a long, hard struggle. She had suffered a broken humerus in her left flipper and a pretty nasty shark bite on her shell, and it would take months of rehabilitation, perseverance, and dedication to see Scotty back to the water.

Christian Guerreri, head of the turtle rehabilitation program at the aquarium, worked with Scotty for her entire five months of “rehab,” which was funded entirely by NEST—the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles.  NEST is a non-profit organization that works in conjunction with the North Carolina Aquarium to maintain a turtle rehabilitation facility.

“We are lucky to have the NEST facility down here,” Michelle said. “We [the National Park Service] don’t have the funds to do it.”

The first and most important order of business was to fix the turtle’s broken humerus, which proved to be no easy task. Not only was the humerus badly broken, it was also badly infected. 

After rounds of antibiotics and months of rehabilitation, and just when it seemed Scotty was well enough for release, Christian and team encountered a bump in the road—bone shards from the broken humerus in Scotty’s left flipper were pushing up through the skin, causing an abscess.  It would be another month before Scotty could go home.

The trauma to the left flipper would leave a permanent mark on the turtle.   According to Michelle, “Her left flipper will never be the same. You can see that when she walks, she has a funny gait.”
Scotty may have a “funny gait,” but it certainly didn’t slow her down at all when she was finally released.

The Park Service had posted news of the release at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Visitor Center, but not until late on the afternoon before the event.  Park officials were hoping for a crowd, since the release is an opportunity to educate visitors about sea turtles and their nesting areas on the seashore beaches.

So far this year, the Park Service has seen a spike in sea turtle nests on the seashore beaches – 35 so far compared to about 10 this time last year.  In fact, Baker noted that three loggerheads had nested on the Lighthouse Beach within days of Scott’s release.

Baker says she was surprised – pleasantly – by the large turnout of mostly visitors -- lots of families and lots of folks with questions and cameras to see Scotty off.

The onlookers hiked onto the lighthouse beach, but Scotty rode over in a pickup truck.  The truck pulled up close to the ocean. With the large crowd lined up on either side of her, the loggerhead was removed from the plastic tub in which she had ridden, covered with wet towels, from Manteo to Buxton, and placed on the sand. 

After five months of rehab, she was ready to go. She didn’t even pause to say goodbye. 

As the crowd cheered and wished her well, she crawled as fast as she could, straight toward the surf, and a few moments later, disappeared, hopefully forever, beneath the waves.

Scotty took with her metal identification tags on her rear flippers and an encoded tag implanted under her leathery skin with all of her information on it, so if she is observed, perhaps years from now, nesting on a beach or even stranded, observers or rescuers will know her story.

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