Race Against Time: Gulf State Park Unites for a Daring Rescue Mission to Save Sick and Injured Sea Turtle

Aubrey Bianco, Gulf State Park’s pier manager (yellow shirt) and assistant naturalist Cory Powell tend to an injured loggerhead sea turtle brought ashore at the park’s fishing pier. The towel and umbrella were provided by onlookers interested in the turtle’s wellbeing.Courtesy of Farren Dell

The sight of a sea turtle chilling on the beach with a multicolored towel on its back and an umbrella overhead might be funny in a cartoon, but last week at Gulf State Park it was anything but.

This turtle, weakened by injuries and pierced by fishhooks, had been worked to the shore by rescuers after being snagged by an angler on the park’s fishing pier. It would have to endure some time on the beach and a long ride to Mississippi before treatment to save it could even start.

Fortunately for this animal, a rescue network was working exactly the way its designers had hoped.

An injured loggerhead sea turtle brought ashore at Gulf State Park’s fishing pier awaits transport to the Mississippi Aquarium for treatment of its injuries.Courtesy of Farren Dell

Farren Dell, an assistant naturalist at Gulf State Park, said the saga began on Monday, Oct. 4, when a fisherman on the pier first hooked the loggerhead. As it came in, people on the pier could tell the animal was injured. The line broke and the turtle got away; but word spread and when it was hooked again on the following Thursday, people recognized it.

“We were able to identify the turtle because of the very evident injury on her back shell, her carapace,” said Dell.

A loggerhead sea turtle rescued at Gulf State Park was suffering from serious damage to its carapace, probably caused by a boat strike.Courtesy of Farren Dell

“We don’t know who reported it to park staff initially,” Dell said, but whoever hooked the turtle was quick to hand over control to pier attendant Craig Gaston and park security officer Jacob Mitchum. “They were the ones who initially responded and got the turtle safely on shore,” said Dell.

That was no easy feat. The pier is long and sits 20 feet above the water. That means a lot of line under tension from a nearly 100-pound animal, said Dell. But Mitchum and Gaston got the turtle onto land, meaning Dell and others could begin evaluation the animal’s injuries, which included hooks in its mouth and flippers, and a rescue could start.

That meant two immediate things: Keeping the animal secure on land for a little while, and reaching out to the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s NOAA Fisheries office.

Dell, pier manager Aubrey Bianco and and assistant naturalist Cory Powell worked to make the turtle as comfortable as possible. There was a crowd of onlookers eager to help, Dell said.

“From there, our job was really to create as stress-free an environment as possible,” she said. “There were a lot of people around. We needed to make sure the public stayed back and that it was pretty quiet.”

An injured loggerhead sea turtle brought ashore at Gulf State Park awaits the beginning of treatment, a hook still visible on the side of its head. While it’s not unusual for barnacles to attach to turtles, excessive buildup can indicate that an animal has been weak and moving slowly for a while.Courtesy of Farren Dell

“We had a few beachgoers that gave us some of their beach equipment,” she said. “A young girl gave us her beach towel that we soaked and put on the back of the turtle, and then a couple had brought over their umbrella for us to set up and give the turtle some shade, which was really great.”

“We were really lucky with this incident. Everyone watching was very respectful of our work and the turtle. We were able to take some time and educate the people around us.”

For the next half hour or more, Dell was on the phone with Lyndsey Howell, the turtle stranding network’s state coordinator for Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The upshot was that a crew was dispatched from the Mississippi Aquarium to meet Gulf State Park staff in Grand Bay and take possession of the turtle. A more in-depth assessment began immediately, Dell said, with Dr. Sean Perry using a mobile ultrasound rig to get an accurate heart rate.

Dr. Sean Perry of the Mississippi Aquarium determines the heart rate of an injured loggerhead sea turtle using a portable ultrasound (Vet IQ+) unit.Courtesy of Farren Dell

It was a few days before the Mississippi Aquarium went public with the turtle’s condition, which likely would have led to its death if left unattended.

“The turtle had multiple hooks and other fishing gear stuck in her flippers, shell, and mouth, a severely fractured shell and visible barnacles attached all over her body,” said a statement released this week by the aquarium. Some barnacles are normal, but excessive building is a sign a turtle is weak and moving slowly. Due to the size of the turtle, Mississippi Aquarium was the only facility in the area capable of taking care of the sea turtle.

Alexa Delaune, the Mississippi Aquarium’s vice president of veterinary services, said Perry removed five hooks from the turtle’s limbs, mouth and body. An X-ray found three additional hooks in the turtle’s digestive system.

“Probably the most severe thing she’s dealing with right now is that she’s really anemic and has really low protein,” said Delaune. “She’s very debilitated, her bloodwork was showing us that.” That has to be addressed before she’s a good candidate for anesthesia and surgery. Once the patient’s bloodwork looks better, Delaune and her team can begin to address the damaged shell and the ingested hooks.

The injuries suggest a narrative to Delaune: “Probably what happened is she got injured by a boat, got an infection and became weak and was seeking out food at the fishing pier, because she wasn’t able to hunt like she normally would.”

Delaune and Dell both said they weren’t surprised by the sympathetic reaction this turtle, which hasn’t been given a name yet, received from bystanders.

“It does seem that people really do like sea turtles, they’re pretty charismatic animals,” Delaune said. “From my experience people are very excited to see them and they do love to try to help wildlife when they can.”

“I think sea turtles are looked upon pretty fondly,” she said.

“Here in Alabama they’re a point of pride to our coastal communities,” said Dell. In her four years at the park, she said, “I’ve definitely noticed that people have an immediate response to want to help.”

“Sea turtles just draw a certain type of attention,” Dell said. “People immediately want to do what they can.”

She said a “Share the Beach” campaign backed by the Alabama Coastal Foundation has helped improve public awareness in recent years, making people better informed about the way human activity can harm sea turtles. They’re particularly vulnerable in that they lay their eggs on shore, and newly hatched turtles much crawl to the water. Dell said that as the pier’s new manager, Bianco has made it a priority to promote public awareness of such issues.

An injured loggerhead sea turtle brought ashore at Gulf State Park in Alabama is examined at the Mississippi Aquarium, where its injuries will be treated.Courtesy of the Mississippi Aquarium

This rescue also illustrates the impact of NOAA’s turtle stranding and salvage network, Dell said. She and pier manager Bianco are volunteers with the network, but there’s a lot more to it, she said.

The network reaches out to institutions to Gulf State Park to make them aware of its resources and alert to the need for rescues. Park staff in turn spread the word to visitors. Dell said a good relationship between park staff and people who regularly fish the pier is one reason things went so smoothly this time.

It’s no accident this turtle went to Mississippi. NOAA has established guidelines for sea turtle care. You don’t just put a turtle this big in a kids’ wading pool and hope for the best. Under NOAA standards, the Mississippi Aquarium — which opened about a year ago — was the only institution in the region that had suitable pools available.

“Loggerheads get much bigger but she is a pretty sizeable turtle,” said Delaune. “She weighs 44 kilograms, which is about 90 pounds and her carapace length is 71.4 centimeters [28 inches]. She’s a pretty big-sized turtle.” She’s a little below full adult size, Delaune said, but given her struggles she’s probably best classed as an adult.

“That’s the thing that’s difficult, is you have to have a proper holding pool for her,” said Delaune. “NOAA, they regulate the size of the pool that you can have, and the depth. We happen to have an area we use to quarantine our animals before they come into the aquarium, or we use them as hospital tanks if someone is sick and needs to go off-exhibit for treatment.”

This turtle likely will be at the Aquarium for a while. It seems like a safe bet that staff from Gulf State Park will be checking in.

“This is the first Alabama sea turtle to go into the Mississippi Aquarium, so this is exciting,” said Dell. “We’ve never met their staff before or worked with them. This is hopefully a great beginning to a new partnership with the Mississippi Aquarium for us.”

“Once she’s a good candidate we need to address her shell injuries, because they’re very extensive on her end part of her carapace, the top shell,” Delaune said. “It looks like a boat strike injury and not only are there fractures there are pieces of missing shell. So it’s going to take a long time for that defect to heal and fill in.”

“I would anticipate many months, maybe a year,” said Delaune. “We’ll do what we can to help her.”


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