Sick and injured sea turtle hooked at Gulf State Park triggers rescue effort

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.

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.

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

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.

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.”

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.

“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.

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

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