Tucker and Comber: sea turtle FAQ

comber and tucker collage

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's arrival

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.

Tucker Release 02

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!

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Tucker the sea turtle heading to sunny San Diego

sea turtle

By all accounts, Tucker the sea turtle has made an amazing recovery. After stranding on Cannon Beach in Oregon last December, this cold-stunned olive ridley sea turtle was transported to the Seattle Aquarium—Washington State’s only sea turtle rehabilitation facility.

Sea turtle strandings on Pacific Northwest beaches, once relatively rare, have been occurring more regularly. Sea turtles don’t travel this far north unless they’re injured or sick, and once stranded, they require immediate care to survive. This winter, a record 10 sea turtles washed ashore on beaches in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, and only three have lived. If ocean conditions and weather patterns continue as they have the last couple of years, more turtles are expected to arrive in the future.

Tucker’s primary issues upon arrival at the Seattle Aquarium were severe hypothermia and pneumonia. His core body temperature was in the 40s, when it should be close to 80°F, and he was unable to breathe on his own due to the pneumonia. He was in dire condition—unresponsive and nearly dead. In fact, the name “Tucker” came from the first sign of life he showed: tucking his tail under his body.

Seattle Aquarium staff worked to warm him, and his organs slowly began functioning again. His caretakers provided ventilation by hand for nearly a week until Tucker could breathe by himself. As he recovered, he regained his appetite and began to feed successfully. He’s gained seven pounds since December.

Tucker still had another hurdle to overcome: increased buoyancy, resulting from air trapped in his body, which causes difficulty with diving. On March 30, he became the first sea turtle to receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy at Virginia Mason to remove gas bubbles from his body. CT scans taken afterward showed improvement, and the treatment was deemed a success.

Now Tucker is ready to take the next step in his recovery—or, in this case, the next flight. On April 21, Tucker, along with a rescued Pacific green sea turtle named Comber, who was receiving treatment at the Vancouver Aquarium, will be transported by the US Coast Guard to specialists at SeaWorld San Diego. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) coordinated with the Coast Guard to schedule the turtle transport to coincide with their regular pilot training; the Coast Guard is using this opportunity to train for other emergency situations that could involve passengers requiring critical care during the flight.

Tucker and Comber’s treatment and recovery will continue at SeaWorld, under permit by the USFWS, 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.

Watch for our next post, with FAQs about Tucker and Comber. In the meantime, you can learn more about Comber by checking out this post from the Vancouver Aquarium.

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Marine Mammal Mania: harbor seal timeline

Just in time for four weekends of fun during our Marine Mammal Mania event, here are some fascinating details about the life cycle of the most ubiquitous (and, dare we say, most charming?) marine mammal in Puget Sound: the harbor seal! Plus tidbits about the Seattle Aquarium’s own Barney, Hogan and Q.

Barney and Q

Mating (-10 months)

Harbor seals are usually conceived in September, when most mating occurs.

Implantation (-6.5 months)

When mating produces a fertilized egg, the egg stays in a state of limbo (or delayed implantation) for a couple months. It will not begin to develop into a harbor seal embryo until it implants in the mother’s uterus.

Birth (0)

In Puget Sound, most pups are born between late June and September.

Weaning (1 month)

Pups nurse for about one month before starting life on their own. Pups fast for the first 14–17 days after weaning and lose about 21 percent of their body weight. A rough start to life!

Sexual maturity (2–6 years)

Females mature when they are between 2 and 5 years old, and males mature when they are between 3 and 6 years old.

Hogan

Hogan (2.5 years)

Hogan was born in June 2013 at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

Average longevity (8–10 years)

The average longevity for wild harbor seals is eight years for males and 10 years for females. But that average includes high mortality rates in the first few years. Wild harbor seals that survive those critical times can live into their 20s.

Q

Q (16 years)

Q was born at Sea World San Diego.

Barney

Barney (30 years)

Barney was born right here at the Seattle Aquarium!

Oldest harbor seal? (48 years)

We don’t know for sure what the record is for the oldest harbor seal under human care but, as of 2014, a female at Cleveland was still going strong at the age of 48!

Interested in learning more about harbor seals before heading to the Aquarium for Marine Mammal Mania? Check out our harbor seal fact sheet!

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Virginia Mason, Seattle Aquarium partner to provide hyperbaric oxygen therapy to help rescued sea turtle recover

Pictured above is Tucker, the 70-pound, ~20 year old olive ridley sea turtle, in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber at the Virginia Mason Center for Hyperbaric Medicine. He was closely monitored by a team of experts that included Seattle Aquarium veterinarian Lesanna Lahner and Jim Holm, MD, medical director of hyperbaric medicine.

A rescued sea turtle undergoing rehabilitation at the Seattle Aquarium became the first nonhuman treated in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber at Virginia Mason Hospital earlier this week when medical experts and marine wildlife veterinarians collaborated in an effort to compress internal gas bubbles that prevent the reptile from diving or remaining under water.

The 70-pound olive ridley sea turtle, named Tucker by aquarium staff who have cared for him since December, is undergoing tests at the Seattle Aquarium this week to determine if hyperbaric therapy—which involved breathing 100 percent oxygen for about 2 ½ hours—corrected his buoyancy problem. The turtle cannot be safely released back into the Pacific Ocean until he is able to dive normally, which is important for him to find food and avoid predators and other threats, such as boats.

While at the Virginia Mason Center for Hyperbaric Medicine on Monday, the 20-year-old turtle was closely monitored by a team of experts that included Seattle Aquarium veterinarian Lesanna Lahner, DVM, MPH, and James Holm, MD, medical director at the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine. Drs. Lahner and Holm, and hyperbaric nurse Alyson Barger, RN, were inside the hyperbaric chamber with Tucker from the start of therapy through completion. The turtle was watched closely with a heart monitor and assisted with breathing via a tube in his airway. He was provided sedation and tolerated the treatment well.

“We are honored that the Seattle Aquarium team contacted us about using hyperbaric oxygen as a possible treatment to help Tucker on his road to recovery,” said Dr. Holm, who is board-certified in undersea and hyperbaric medicine and has been a scuba diver for 40 years. “We have treated many scuba divers over the years for a gas bubble disease known as decompression sickness, which is also called ‘the bends.’ This is the first time we have been asked to assist in the care of a sea turtle, which are excellent divers themselves.”

Hyperbaric oxygen has been tested as a treatment for decompression-like sickness in sea turtles, according to a study from Spain published in the October 2014 edition of Diseases of Aquatic Organisms. But this is believed to be the first time the therapy has been used for a sea turtle in the United States with Tucker’s specific ailment.

View more photos here: Seattle Times—Lucky sea turtle gets special treatment at Virginia Mason

During treatment sessions, the hyperbaric chamber is pressurized with air to about three times the normal atmospheric pressure. Patients breathe 100 percent oxygen, enabling their blood to carry up to 15 times the normal amount of oxygen to organs and tissues. This can help “crush” bubbles, as well as provide high tissue oxygen levels to restore normal tissue function.

In December, Tucker was found stranded and near death on the Oregon Coast far from his usual warm-water Pacific Ocean habitat off Southern California and Mexico. He has been undergoing treatment and rehabilitation at the Seattle Aquarium to correct the effects of severe pneumonia. Hand-fed and nurtured by the Aquarium staff, the turtle has regained weight and a normal body temperature. However, a CT (computerized tomography) scan showed gas bubbles may be trapped in his body, making him too buoyant to dive successfully and find food on his own in the wild.

“I am thrilled that Virginia Mason and its amazing team were willing to bring Tucker the sea turtle into the hyperbaric chamber,” said Lahner. “Not only will the treatment potentially help him to be released back into the wild, but it has provided us valuable information about the diving physiology of sea turtles as we were able to closely monitor his vitals and blood gases throughout the entire procedure.

“This has been an exciting collaboration of veterinary medicine and human health care providers,” she added.

Virginia Mason is the region’s leading provider of hyperbaric oxygen treatment for conditions such as carbon monoxide poisoning and decompression sickness, a potentially life-threatening hazard of scuba diving. Its Level 1, 24-hour hyperbaric medicine program is one of the few in the United States accredited “with distinction” by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society.

In addition to decompression sickness and carbon monoxide poisoning, the Virginia Mason Center for Hyperbaric Medicine treats medical conditions such as diabetic wounds and tissue damaged by radiation during cancer therapy. “Treatment of radiation tissue injury is our most common indication,” Dr. Holm said. “The condition requires multiple treatments and has excellent outcomes.”

The center provides about 8,000 hours of patient treatment annually. The tube-shaped hyperbaric oxygen chamber, measuring 10 feet wide and 46 feet long, can accommodate as many as 16 human patients at one time.

The Center for Hyperbaric Medicine was established more than 40 years ago and has been in its current location at Virginia Mason Hospital since 2005. The program’s medical staff members have published nearly 100 articles about hyperbaric medicine in a variety of medical journals.

More related news: KING5 News—Sea turtle get hyperbaric treatment at Virginia Mason

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Puffer profiles

While there may be about 120 species of puffer fish, they all share the ability for which they’re named: when threatened, they can rapidly fill their bellies with air or water, expanding like balloons to twice or even three times their normal size! Another thing this species has in common? They all live in tropical waters—there are no known species of cold-water puffers. On an ominous note, puffer fish are the second most poisonous vertebrate, right behind poison dart frogs, to humans—thanks to concentrations of a toxic chemical, tetrodotoxin, in their skin and liver. Here’s one thing all puffers don’t have in common: they don’t all live in saltwater. There are 29 known species of freshwater puffers! Keep reading to learn about the puffers on exhibit at the Seattle Aquarium.

white spotted puffer

White-spotted puffer

Arothron hispidus

Nocturnal and solitary, this large puffer can be aggressive about protecting its territory from intruders. Its diet includes a wide variety of invertebrates like crabs, mollusks, corals, coralline algae, tunicates, sea stars and urchins.

dog face puffer

Dog-faced puffer

Arothron nigropunctatus

Growing to one foot in length, this diurnal (active during the day) fish shares many features with other puffers. It has no lower rib bones or pectoral fins, allowing it to rapidly swallow large amounts of water or air to fend off predators. Although not visible, sharp spines reside under the fish’s skin and can pierce predators when the body is inflated.

 whitespotted toby

Whitespotted toby

Canthigaster jactator

This tiny puffer grows to five inches and is only found around the Hawaiian Islands. As with all puffers, this fish’s teeth grow throughout their lives and need to be continuously worn down through chewing on live rock or shells. In fact, members of the puffer family, Tetraodontidae, are named for their four large teeth, fused into a beak.

spot-fin porcupinefish

Spot-fin porcupinefish

Diodon hystrix

Also known as the spotted porcupinefish or just the porcupinefish, this puffer is found in tropical waters worldwide. Its body is covered in numerous long, sharp spines. When the fish’s body is not inflated, these spines can be seen lying flat and pointing toward the tail. However when the puffer puffs up, the spines point outwards, providing a formidable defense.

Eager to know more about puffers? Check out our puffer fish fact sheet, then come visit these super-cool fish in our Pacific Coral Reef and Tropical Pacific exhibits!

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