‘My buddy’: Rehabilitated turtle offers more than a cautionary tale

By Elizabeth Sills

A tiny, bloody flipper protrudes up through a cracked shell. The meager arm is illuminated by a blinding light. It’s only barely visible poking up into the air.

Based on the rest of the scene at Atlantic Beach, one would assume that this fin belonged to one of many dead sea turtle hatchlings scattered across the sand.

The culprit appeared to be an off-leash dog. The dog was intrigued by the small dark ovals moving around the shore, likely from a nest that was unmarked and had been missed by volunteers. So, the dog did what dogs do. It investigated.

When concerned condo residents noticed the carnage, they called the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.

Shattered bits of egg shells add a faint crunch under the soles of aquarium volunteers, who followed the turtle tracks. The small boomerang-shaped indentations in the sand lead them to an area under a  light source. But there are no baby sea turtles to be found beneath the light or its surrounding shadows. They had been eaten by ghost crabs.

All except one.

One turtle, the one with the tiny wing, survived, setting in motion a long rehabilitation journey, one that exemplifies the dangers of light pollution to North Carolina’s coastal wildlife.

An emergency surgery

The loggerhead was found by Michele Lamping, a turtle specialist at the Pine Knoll Shores. She assumed it was dead. Then, she saw the flipper move.

It was still attached to its yolk sac, a lima bean-sized bag of fluid that provides vital nutrients to hatchlings while they develop inside the egg. The yolk is connected to the membrane of the eggshell, and turtles typically remain connected to it for a few days after hatching.

The turtle was driven 11 minutes to the aquarium veterinary offices and delivered to chief veterinarian Emily Christiansen. Christiansen performed minor surgery, involving one small suture in the egg to preserve the yolk sac. However, there was no security this would keep him alive.

“I was very surprised that little hatchling survived,” Christiansen said. “He’s not the first one that’s been brought to me in a vulnerable state.”

From there, it was up to Lamping to facilitate the healing process. The turtle was transported to the Pine Knoll Shores rehabilitation facility, which resides in the center of the aquarium.

“(Christiansen) brought it back to me on Monday, the only survivor of the nest,” Lamping said. “But there were two human errors. One, letting the dog off the leash. Two, light pollution. That has not been fixed.”

The consequences of light pollution

Light and dark signal to animals when to eat, to sleep, to mate, to hunt and to migrate.

Light pollution, an artificial brightening of the night sky that causes disruptions in natural cycles, is an evolving issue on the North Carolina coast. Atlantic Beach has the highest amount of light pollution per square foot in the state. It can be caused by anything from hotel room fluorescents to street lamps to people donning headlamps while fishing at night.

When the time comes for baby sea turtles to hatch and scamper across the beach, their inclination is to head toward the luminous horizon of the ocean. But things get complicated when beach-front condos fire up their “No Vacancy” signs and tourists swing phone flashlights around during nighttime beach strolls.

“We say it’s misoriented, not disoriented,” Matthew Godfrey, a sea turtle biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, said. “Disorientation means you’re just going in random directions, whereas misorientation means you’re directed to go the wrong way.”

Following this false sense of security leaves hatchlings stranded on the dunes and suffering from dehydration. Or they become roadkill after wandering too far off the beach. Or they become dinner for a ghost crab.

Based on these odds, the fact that the loggerhead hatchling survived is miraculous.

“It’s actually a pretty rare scenario where they’ve got a turtle in there for light pollution,” Godfrey said.

A happy, yet bittersweet, ending

Loggerhead turtle swims.
The loggerhead turtle hatchling, now nearly a year and a half, swims around his tank at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.

Now, nearly a year and a half later, the loggerhead is no longer a tiny, fluttering black hatchling. He’s a full-fledged juvenile, spending most of his day in a large white tank. He paddles within the tank’s turquoise interior. Occasionally, his brown spotted shell emerges at the surface and he pokes his head up for some gulps of air. When he does, he makes his way around the perimeter of the tub, nodding a quick hello to Lamping and Shannon Kemp, the aquarium’s communications manager, before diving down to glide along the floor.

Over the hum of the tank machinery, Lamping moves through the maze of temporary turtle homes. She spends the majority of her day in this room rehabilitating turtles. It’s a large space full of water tanks, each housing various sick or injured animals, the majority of which are turtles. Her job as hands-on rehabilitator encompasses a variety of important tasks: cleaning tanks, administering medication, monitoring body temperature and convincing animals to eat.

“There’s poop on your leg,” Kemp notices, pointing to the bottom of Lamping’s right pant leg.

“There’s always poop on my leg,” Lamping replied with a laugh.

That’s part of the job, she admits. And minor details like rogue turtle feces can be overlooked in the name of protecting vulnerable, usually endangered, animals.

This particular animal’s improbable genesis allowed him to claim the illustrious title of education ambassador for the aquarium. When he’s not being examined by Lamping or munching on lettuce, he receives visits from elementary schoolers and eco-interested tourists. He is a rare living example of the consequences of light pollution.

Lamping said that it’s likely this stalwart will be released sometime in May. He will be strong and healthy enough to return to the North Carolina waters and begin his lifelong migration journey.

It will be a bittersweet farewell. The pair have spent nearly every day of the past 18 months together. As she says this, the loggerhead resurfaces, pivoting his body to face Lamping head-on.

“I will miss this turtle. I love this turtle,” Lamping said, leaning over the side of the tub. “This turtle’s my buddy.”

Edited by Isabella Braddish and Maddie Ellis