A Head Start for Tortuga, Adventure Aquarium’s Rehab and Release Loggerhead Sea Turtle

By: Alicia Longo, Biologist II – Fish & Invertebrates

Sea turtle conservation is a very important issue in marine science. All seven species of sea turtles living in the oceans are classified as threatened or endangered in the wild, primarily due to human activity. As a result, many conservation strategies are currently being implemented in an effort to help save sea turtles from extinction. In November 2012, Adventure Aquarium began participating in a sea turtle conservation and tracking project ran by North Carolina Aquarium with the acquisition of a Loggerhead Sea Turtle hatchling our guests named “Tortuga.” This conservation program allows sea turtle hatchlings to get a head start at aquariums where they are closely monitored and grow in a safe environment for eventual release into the ocean.

A then, 3-month old Tortuga!

 Tortuga at 3 months old

If you’ve visited recently or have been tracking Tortuga’s progress, it may be no surprise how much he has grown! When he first arrived at Adventure Aquarium, he weighed only 129 grams. I remember how small he was, and how interested he was to investigate everything with his mouth. At his last weigh-in, Tortuga weighed 7800 grams, which is over 17 pounds!

Tortuga7

Tortuga now – officially a “yearling”

I have been working with Tortuga since his arrival in 2012. Being a Rehab and Release sea turtle, I limit human interaction with him, such as frequent handling or hand-feeding. This prevents him from getting used to or dependent on humans. Instead, Tortuga is handled only when being weighed and measured or being transported.

Alicia measures Tortuga's carapace

Alicia measures Tortuga’s carapace

I have also introduced many forms of enrichment that provide challenging methods of providing Tortuga’s daily diet. Allowing Tortuga to use foraging skills to “find” his food ensures that once released, he will be successful in foraging on his own. If you’ve visited Tortuga, or have been following his blog updates, you may have seen these enrichment items!

Tortuga's recent enrichment includes learning to hunt and forage, using a whiffle ball stuffed with food.

Tortuga’s recent enrichment includes learning to hunt and forage, using a whiffle ball stuffed with food.

The newest form of enrichment that has proven to be very successful is a “feed mat,” a large sinking PVC-square with screening mainly used to hold lots of greens for benthic, or bottom, foraging. This simulates foraging on vegetation he may find in seagrass beds. The feed mat has also been adapted to hold fish, shrimp, and a vitamin-supplemented omnivore gel.

Tortuga explores his sea grass mat enrichment

Tortuga explores his seagrass mat enrichment

And watch him in action:

Another new form of enrichment that Tortuga has been enjoying is blue claw crab. When he was younger, I would provide small portions of claws, but now that he is a yearling, I’ve begun offering whole crabs! He absolutely loves these, devouring every piece. This is very encouraging that he will be successful at foraging on benthic crustaceans and shelled-mollusks once released. The crabs Tortuga currently receives in his diet are not live, however the closer he gets to being released, more live food items will be offered to provide even better foraging skills.

Watch Tortuga tear into a blue crab!

Have you gone to visit Tortuga’s exhibit, but found he wasn’t there? Over the last few weeks, our team has been slowly introducing Tortuga into Rainbow Reef, a large exhibit in Zone A. Tortuga has grown so well that we must keep up with him! A larger space for Tortuga will allow more room to explore and provide lots of mental stimulation, as Rainbow Reef is very dynamic with many Caribbean fishes and creates an environment similar to what he will encounter when visiting coral reefs in the ocean. He has done very well in the new exhibit, and we hope to move him permanently into Rainbow Reef in the near future, where he will remain until his release later this year.

Exploring  his new home in Rainbow Reef

Exploring his new home in Rainbow Reef

Tortuga’s release is currently set for late September/early October 2014 and will take place back at North Carolina Aquarium where he first entered the program. Prior to release, he will have a satellite monitoring device attached to his carapace, or upper shell, that will further aid in sea turtle conservation research. Every time Tortuga surfaces for a breath of air, a signal will be sent to a satellite that records his coordinates, providing migration information. Typically the tags remain attached to the carapace for about one year. Many rehabilitated sea turtles that are released are participating in satellite tagging, allowing researchers to track migration patterns of various species, as well as determine onshore nesting sites.

Adventure Aquarium hopes to continue participating in the sea turtle conservation and tracking program with North Carolina Aquarium after Tortuga’s release.

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