Swimming with Sea Turtles: Captive Edition
By Corri Osborne
Editor’s Note: Here in Central Florida, we are most familiar with sea turtles on our beaches during nesting season, yet these marine creatures can be encountered in the water as well. Please visit our Loggerhead Lowdown blog here over the next week as some of our writers and STPS members describe their own experiences with sea turtles in the water.
Way back in early 2005, I was an intern at an aquarium in northwest Florida. Those of us that were there that semester had an exceptional experience, as Category 5 Hurricane Ivan ran right through the Florida Panhandle a few months earlier, closing our facility, as well as many others, until repairs could be made. Normal operations requiring multiple presentations to the public were suspended while we were there, though the animals were still run through their training exercises.
Our aquarium was home to all sorts of animal species, including marine mammals like seals, sea lions, dolphins, river otters, South African penguins, sharks, rays, many kinds of fish and birds, and several species of sea turtles.
All of the turtles at the facility were rehab turtles that could not be released due to severe injury compromising their ability to survive in the wild. Before you feel sorry for them, know that they had adapted incredibly well to life in captivity and, in addition to the enrichment keepers would provide, found ways to entertain themselves, often at our expense.
We had an adult female green sea turtle that had been relocated from a Gulf Coast exhibit full of all sorts of trigger fish and eels and a giant tarpon to a giant doughnut-shaped pool meant to allow sharks to easily keep swimming in a comfortable fashion. Whenever we had to power wash the pool underwater, we would gate off both ends to keep the sharks from sharing the space with us, not from any sort of real worry (as they were lemon and nurse sharks) but to keep us from having to dodge them while we were concentrating on the task at hand. Our clever green sea turtle friend very much liked to have her carapace power washed whenever she had the opportunity, and we had to gate her off with the sharks if we wanted to get any work done at all, or she would push us all around to maneuver us into power scrubbing her instead of the walls. Over time, she actually figured out how to lift the gates to get in with us, turning a simple task into an adventure. We worked hard at negotiating with her to reinforce that we would happily allow her to enjoy a power scrubbing if she’d let us finish the pool beforehand.
The Gulf Coast-themed tank that she had formerly lived in became home to a pair of much smaller loggerhead turtles. One, aptly named Lefty, was missing his front left flipper. He quickly learned that he could sneak up over a diver’s right shoulder and grab the regulator in his beak and swim away, robbing unsuspecting divers of their ability to breathe underwater in a flash. This tactic was deployed most frequently at feeding times, forcing us to feed him first and frequently, so that we could continue to spend time underwater without panic.
It was an amazing experience to spend several months caring for these creatures, as it was the first of many times I have been reminded that sea turtles, having survived millennia of changing world conditions, continue to adapt and thrive in whatever unique situations they find themselves.