News Column

Injured turtles on mend at North Carolina Aquarium

August 3, 2014

By Jeff Hampton, The Virginian-Pilot

Aug. 03--MANTEO, N.C. -- Vortex, a loggerhead sea turtle, peacefully swam around a blue plastic tank at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.

Schoolchildren looking down at it probably didn't notice the small scar running the length of its head -- a remnant from when a boat propeller cracked its skull.

Vortex is much better now 14 months after the accident nearly exposed its brain, cracked two parts of its shell and pushed a bone chip into its jaw. The piece worked its way out over time through the neck, and that hole also had to be treated.

"It was a very, very bad injury," said aquarium curator Christian Legner. "This turtle was lucky."

More than a week ago, the reptile was one of two special patients in an unlikely place: a human medical facility on the Outer Banks.

A CT scan was performed for free at Sentara Kitty Hawk on July 25, and the test revealed the wounds had healed.

The teenage turtle, the diameter of a round skim board, can catch and eat blue crabs, a strong sign of good health, said Legner, who has injected antibiotics and applied infection-fighting cream to the wounds.

Vortex is expected to be released this month carrying a satellite fastened to its back with marine epoxy.

"Clinically, it's ready to go," she said.

Loggerhead turtles are classified as threatened along the Outer Banks.

Vortex is about 15 years old, Legner said. Sea turtles reach maturity at 25 to 30. Males have long tails jutting out behind the shell, while those of females are short. Vortex remains an "it" until the tail unveils the gender in about a decade, she said.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore saw a record 243 sea turtle nests on its beaches last year, according to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. An all-time high of 1,303 -- mostly loggerheads -- nested on the state's beaches in 2013.

The sea turtle nest count at the park is down to 109, bucking a recent trend of reaching over 200 the past two years, according to rangers. More turtles could still nest at Outer Banks beaches this season, but there were about 200 already by this time last year.

Legner and the staff have treated 25 sea turtles so far, predominantly for cold stun suffered in the winter. Last year, 104 were brought to the center, often saved by one of the more than 150 volunteers with the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles. Vortex is the only one suffering from a prop strike treated at the aquarium in the past two years.

Aquile, a rare green turtle that also got a CT scan, swam in a tank near Vortex. The dinner-plate-size turtle suffered frostbite on its shell early last winter, losing part of it and a piece of its vertebra and exposing the spinal cord. The skin and shell are gradually growing back in place, but the wounds are serious.

"It will need long-term care," Legner said.

Jeff Hampton, 252-338-0159,


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