Comber, on the left, is a Pacific green sea turtle. Tucker, on the right, is an olive ridley sea turtle.
Q: Why are the two turtles named Tucker and Comber?
A: When Tucker arrived in Seattle in December, he was in unresponsive and in critical condition. Tucking his tail was the first sign of life he showed. Also, it was unclear whether he was male or female: male adult sea turtles can be distinguished from females by their much larger tails. Once his tail was finally seen, it could be determined that he was male.
Comber was named for the place that he was found in January: remote Combers Beach, Vancouver Island, north of Victoria, B.C.
Q: What kind of turtles are Tucker and Comber?
A: Tucker is an olive ridley sea turtle, an endangered species in the Pacific Northwest. They are the smallest sea turtle in the Pacific, at 22 to 31 inches when fully grown and a maximum weight of about 100 pounds.
Comber is a Pacific green sea turtle, a threatened species on the U.S. West Coast. Pacific green sea turtles are the largest hard-shell sea turtle, growing to about three feet in length and weighing 300–350 pounds.
Q: Where do turtles like Tucker and Comber normally live?
A: Many species of sea turtle are found throughout the Pacific Ocean, although they mostly occur in the tropical and subtropical areas. They generally venture no further north than Southern California on the eastern Pacific coast but, they do occur in temperate regions including the relatively cold waters of Oregon and Washington coasts. Some sea turtles even occur in Alaska! Our coastal waters are highly productive and provide excellent food resources. However, sea turtles aren’t typically found on our beaches unless they’re seriously sick or injured. Olive ridleys are the most frequently stranded sea turtle in the Northwest, followed by the Pacific green sea turtle.
Q: When and where were they found?
A: Tucker was found near Cannon Beach on December 14, 2015. He was rescued by the Seaside Aquarium staff and transferred by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Seattle Aquarium.
Comber was rescued by Parks Canada staff on January 23, 2015. He was located between Victoria and Tofino, British Columbia on Vancouver Island and immediately transported by ferry to the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Both turtles were provided critical care to treat hypothermia, dehydration and other injuries.
Q: What are their sizes and status?
A: Tucker is a just about two feet long and weighs in at 66 pounds, and is one of the few male olive ridleys that have been treated in the Pacific Northwest. Read our previous blog post for details about his diagnosis and treatment.
Comber is more than two feet long and weighs around 84 pounds. He was hypothermic but in otherwise relatively good condition when he arrived for treatment. As he warmed, he quickly became active and began feeding. He has responded well to his treatment, and caretakers look forward to his return to the wild.
Q: How are distressed turtles treated?
A: Aquarium staff treat hypothermia by providing the equivalent of intravenous fluids and gradually warming the turtle, eventually reintroducing them to water. As they warm, the recovering turtles begin feeding after about a week and a half to three weeks. Olive ridleys seem to be particularly prone to buoyancy after stranding. Buoyancy is caused by air trapped within the turtle’s body that inhibits diving and requires special handling during transport. With continuing treatment and care, the turtles are expected to be returned to the wild when the sea surface temperatures have warmed off the coast of southern California.
Comber was transported from the Vancouver Aquarium to the Seattle Aquarium, before heading to SeaWorld San Diego.
Q: What will happen to Comber and Tucker after their transport?
A: They will be taken to a U.S. Navy base and transferred to specialists from SeaWorld San Diego. Their treatment and recovery will continue at SeaWorld, under permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with an expected release date to the Pacific Ocean in July or August. The release date will occur when the ocean has warmed enough to ensure the best chance of a successful survival and return to the wild.
Q: Why do sea turtles strand on Northwest beaches so far from warmer water?
A: We really don’t know why turtles become stranded—research is ongoing to try to determine the causes. Generally, stranded turtles are “hypothermic” or “cold-stunned” and cannot function normally. Often, other illness or injury stresses turtles, making them unable to effectively respond to cold water by returning to warmer waters. Entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris, motorboat collisions or ingestion of non-food items such as plastic bags that resemble jellyfish (a turtle favorite), can all lead to injury and stress that can eventually cause stranding.
Strandings are often seen in late fall and early winter when ocean conditions are transitioning, possibly trapping turtles in colder waters. Severe storms and weather conditions can displace turtles northward as they follow currents or search for food. Turtles can get trapped in cold waters during these events. As cold water reduces their body temperatures, the turtles become less able to swim and feed, and more susceptible to ocean and wind currents, and injury or illness. These factors can also eventually lead to stranding.
Q: Why do we rescue sea turtles so far north?
A: All sea turtle species that strand on beaches in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia are listed as threatened or endangered species in the U.S. and suffer a variety of threats including destruction and alteration of nesting and feeding habitats; incidental capture (bycatch) in commercial and recreational fisheries; entanglement in or ingestion of marine debris; and vessel strikes. Returning an endangered species to the wild is important to the future generations that those individuals will produce. The experience gained from treatment of these animals ensures that we will have the knowledge to respond to a more serious event, like an oil spill, in the future.
Q: How did the U.S. Coast Guard become involved in transporting a turtle?
A: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requested the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard with the transport, hoping they would be able to include her transport in their training routine.
The Coast Guard is an environmental protection agency working closely with the environmental protection community and other agencies involved in animal rescue. Sometimes their aircraft, vessels, and personnel are available to help transport animals for treatment, relocation, or return to the wild in conjunction with other operations or required training missions.
Q: What should I do if I find a turtle or other sea animal stranded in an unnatural situation?
A: Call the local authorities. In Washington, Oregon and California, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network can be reached at 1‑866-767-6114. In British Columbia, stranded turtles can be reported at www.wildwhales.org or 1-866-472-9663.
Important points to keep in mind:
- Sea turtles are listed and protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and wildlife laws of each state. All sea turtles, both dead and alive, are legally protected.
- Callers should be prepared to describe the exact location of the turtle, whether it appears to be dead or alive, and the estimated weight of the animal or length of its shell to help responders estimate the number of people needed lift the turtle.
- If possible, stay near the animal to help orient officials and protect the turtle from scavengers.
- Due to the considerable travel distances that may be involved, and the possibility that another turtle stranding could occur at the same time, response can be delayed. Please be patient.
- Due to safety considerations, personnel may not travel at night to isolated unfamiliar areas.
Q: What can I do to help sea turtles?
A: Besides notifying the authorities if you see a stranded animal, one of the most important things you can do for sea turtles is to conserve our ocean. Visit the Seattle Aquarium website for ideas!