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No more shell shock

Aquarium of Pacific's green sea turtle has made a dramatic recovery. It'll soon be released back to an unusual spot: the San Gabriel River.

October 25, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Louis Sahagun is a Times staff writer.

The moment the green sea turtle hit the veterinary emergency ward at the Aquarium of the Pacific, it was swept into a whirlwind of critical care starting with X-rays that revealed broken digits and infected lacerations in two front flippers and a 3-inch gash on its carapace. In a rear flipper, veterinarians found a fishing hook.

The 38-pound turtle had been trapped for nearly a month this summer in an intake channel near a Long Beach power plant, within range of people who tried to snag it with hooks or impale it with makeshift spears. The X-rays were the start of weeks of recuperation and rapid healing.

"She's been a good patient -- sea turtles usually are," aquarium veterinarian Lance Adams said. "Reptiles have an incredible ability to wall off infections, isolate them and heal around them."

This week, nearly two months after it was rescued, the turtle's condition had improved dramatically and it was cleared to return to the wilds within a week or two.

If the turtle's survival is remarkable, so is the place it will eventually be set free: a heavily industrialized stretch of the San Gabriel River where federal biologists recently discovered a resident colony of green sea turtles. Federal biologists have launched a study of this unexpected colony to determine its size and, most intriguingly, why it appeared in what hardly could be called tropical waters.

In the meantime, the patient formally registered as "green sea turtle 0802" was bulking up on a prescribed diet -- a gooey mixture of shrimp, squid and clam pieces -- and convalescing in a circular 7,000-gallon holding tank.

Earlier this month, Adams and an assistant lifted the turtle out of the tank and placed it on a foam pad in preparation for a routine examination.

Then Adams pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and set to work. He flushed the animal's wounds with anti-bacterial soap squirted from a plastic bottle and injected the most troublesome gashes with topical anesthetic. With long-nosed forceps, he dug into cuts to pluck out bone fragments and yellowish tufts of material he described as necrotic, or dead, tissue.

"We may see a little bleeding," he said, "which is great because we want blood vessels exposed in these areas so that they can bring oxygen to the tissue."

He smiled as red blood oozed from the wounds. At the end of the 30-minute procedure, Adams took photographs of the wounds to chronicle "how they have healed over time, and to use the images for future reference."

On Monday, Adams gave the turtle another checkup and liked what he saw.

"Judging from the look of her flippers and their movement when we clean these wounds, the broken bones are starting to mend nicely," Adams said. "And she's gained about four pounds."

He added: "Hardy creatures, these sea turtles."

Some would call that an understatement. Day after day the turtle had endured harassment and eluded capture near the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Haynes Generating Station. The turtle, as wide as a trash can lid, somehow got itself trapped in an inlet grated off from the rest of the channel.

One man, witnesses said, hooked onto one of its rear flippers and then struggled for about an hour and half to bring it to shore. Eventually, the fishing line snapped and the turtle swam free.

On Aug. 29, the Department of Water and Power dispatched a team to rescue the turtle and transport it to the aquarium. In what became a four-day ordeal, the turtle, a master illusionist, poked its head above the surface every 15 minutes or so, deftly disappearing then reappearing in another spot 50 feet away. Each time it breached, team members on shore and divers in the tea-colored channel tried to corral it with large nets. "We got it! We got it!" the would-be rescuers yelled.

But each time the turtle found a way to flop out of a net. "Oh, no!" people shouted. "It got away again."

Eventually, a diver found the turtle hunkered down in a submerged mound of mussels. He grabbed hold of its carapace and held on long enough to hand it over to team members on shore, who placed it in the back of a pickup truck. Less than an hour later, the injured turtle was checked in at the aquarium.

Although this turtle is clearly young, veterinarians don't know its age, or even its sex. Green sea turtles can grow to 5 feet long and weigh more than 500 pounds.

If all goes according to plan, the rehabilitated reptile will join the colony of green sea turtles that resides about a mile upstream in the San Gabriel River, not far from the power plant intake channel where it was rescued.

Preliminary results of an ongoing joint study by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Aquarium of the Pacific indicate that the turtles in the river travel through the sea from local feeding grounds to nesting beaches more than 1,000 miles to the south on islands off the Pacific coast of Mexico.

In years to come, genetic analysis, satellite telemetry, flipper tagging, vital statistics and daily monitoring will answer myriad questions about how they are adapting to the 100-yard-wide channel hemmed by industry and busy freeways.

Leaning on a guardrail overlooking the turtles' foraging grounds in the river, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Dan Lawson said, "This is not a place where you would typically expect to see sea turtles. It's one of the most urbanized areas you'll find anywhere."

Nearby, a spotted sandpiper hunted for insects along a shoreline strewn with trash. Cormorants preened on steel scaffolding. An Anna's hummingbird stopped to rest on a curl of razor wire. Every 10 minutes or so, a green sea turtle poked its head above the water for a gulp of air.

"We have a lot to learn about what's happening here," Lawson said.

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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