Patients with flippers jam S.C. Aquarium turtle hospital

It’s been a hectic year at the South Carolina Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital. Already 27 sea turtles have been released on area beaches and the tanks fill up with new patients almost as quickly as rehabilitated turtles are set free.

This year, for the first time since the hospital opened a decade ago, turtles brought from South Carolina waters have had to be sent to neighboring states for treatment.

Now the aquarium is embarking on a campaign to raise $5 million to create a larger sea turtle hospital that should open by the spring of 2017.

A stinky start

When the aquarium opened in May 2000, there was no thought of a sea turtle hospital. But three months later a state wildlife worker brought in a sick loggerhead and asked if the staff could treat it. The turtle smelled so bad it was dubbed Stinky and a worker had to buy a kiddie pool to keep it in during treatment.

Stinky was released a few months later and found by wildlife researchers a decade later off the coast, an adult male fit and healthy. That was the beginning, and a full hospital was established five years later. Over the years the aquarium has treated and released 172 turtles, including, earlier this year, a rare leatherback.

“Once again, it’s time to grow,” said Kelly Thorvalson, the manager of the aquarium’s sea turtle rescue program. “This is the first year we truly were over capacity and had to transport turtles to other states.”

More patients

Thorvalson attributes the increase in patients to years of turtle conservation efforts that resulted in more turtles in the sea.

Many coastal communities have groups that protect turtle nests on beaches and ordinances requiring beachfront homes to shield or turn lights during nesting season so hatchlings don’t get disoriented while trying to reach the surf. And for 30 years shrimp boats have used turtle excluders that allow the turtles to escape from nets.

“People are learning more about turtles and also watching out for them from boats,” Thorvalson said. “We are seeing more in-water rescues and more boaters and fishermen getting involved.”

Over the years the aquarium has treated and released 172 turtles, including, earlier this year, a rare leatherback.

Hospital expansion

The present hospital is located in the basement of the aquarium on Charleston Harbor.

Kate Dittloff, the aquarium public relations manager, said the expansion will allow aquarium’s 430,000 visitors to see turtles being treated and fed, something that is not possible now. An exhibit on a main floor of the aquarium will have soundproofing and one-way glass so visitors can watch without stressing the turtles.

There are also plans for, among other things, deeper and bigger tanks, new medical equipment and an exercise pools where turtles can swim against a current to better get their strength back before being released into the ocean.

People have always been fascinated by turtles, Thorvalson said.

“They are ancient and they are tough and they are stoic,” she said. “The more you learn about them, the more in awe you become. They are easy to fall in love with.”