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.
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.
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.
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 (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 (16 years)
Q was born at Sea World San Diego.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2016 marks the eighth consecutive year that Seattle Aquarium staff members have conducted reef fish surveys at eight sites along the northwestern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Below, Curator of Conservation Research Dr. Shawn Larson shares her journal from this year’s surveys.
Day 1: January 30, 2016
Arrived at the home of our hosts, Dom and Marie Addario, in Puako late last night after a flight delay and unplanned stop in Portland. Regardless we were ready to go by 7am Hawaii time. The weather was beautiful and the water was relatively calm with 2–4’ waves. We looked at Puako sites 1, 2 and 5 and the ocean was a little rough so we drove 30 minutes north to sites 6 and 7 in Mahukona. The water conditions were good and, as long as we timed our dives, we had no problem accessing the sites and getting into and out of the water with all of our gear—which consisted of full-face masks, communication units, reels and cameras.
Day 2: January 31, 2016
Today the ocean conditions are even better. Little swell and no wind waves. We feel very lucky because our partners in Hawaii, the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), have been unable to dive and do their underwater surveys for over a month. In fact they suggested we postpone our trip until the end of February. We decided we couldn’t do that because the house that we were staying in wasn’t available to us later and we just had to take our chances. We were in luck and able to survey sites 1 and 2 in Puako today. Site 1 is the turtle cleaning station and we saw many turtles there! Site 2 is the most difficult to access from shore and all of us sustained minor injuries because of it—urchin spines and twisted ankles and skinned knees. Even so it was a very productive and good day and we were well on our way to getting most of our work done.
One of many turtles we saw at the turtle cleaning station on Site 1.
Day 3: February 1, 2016
Today we dove with Captain Pete McCormick off his boat the Hapuna. We’ve been doing this for four years and it’s always a treat. Diving off Pete’s boat makes the surveys at sites 3 and 4 off of the Old Kona Airport in Kona a breeze. These used to be our longest surface swims, when we had to access it from shore. Today, there was a gentle swell and our dives went very smoothly. Afterward we motored south past Kona-Kailua to site 8 where the newly discovered Acropera corals live. We surveyed it for just the second time since 2014, as we couldn’t access it last year because of the high surf conditions. There were lots of fish but unfortunately several of the Acropera coral heads were dead. This is due to last summer’s coral bleaching event: unusually warm water temperatures in Hawaii caused bleaching of the corals and sometimes death. Over half of the corals that we saw seemed to be dead.
Over half of the corals we saw seemed to be dead due to unusually warm water temperatures in Hawaii, which caused bleaching of the corals and sometimes death.
Day 4: February 2, 2016
Our luck finally ran out and today the swell was too big to dive our remaining site, 5, in Puako. So we took it easy and swam around checking out site 1 more closely and prepared to give a talk about the research and our findings to the Puako homeowners association at the old historic church on Puako Road.
Day 5: February 3, 2016
Finally we were able to get site 5 done! The waves were still a bit large but this was our last day of diving so we just had to go for it. It was a little stressful timing the waves sets so we didn’t get hammered going out and coming back in but no one got hurt and we were able to survey all our sites. The last duty of the day was to give our talk to the homeowners association about our work and what we have found. We spoke for over an hour to about 20 interested Puako residents discussing our work, coral bleaching and ways to keep the reef healthy.
Day 6: February 4, 2016
This is our non-diving de-gas day so we can purge all the nitrogen that we built up in our tissues from our week of diving preparing for the flight home. To use the time wisely we met with University of Hawaii, Hilo marine biologist Tracy Weigner, a marine ecologist who studies water quality from septic systems and other point sources in Puako and the potential deleterious effects on the reef. Dr. Weigner and her colleagues would like to partner with us on both water quality monitoring as well as the sharing of reef data. It was a very productive meeting and look forward to working with our new partners.
Day 7: February 5, 2016
Today is a travel day and after dropping off all of our scuba gear we headed back to Kona to briefly meet with Dr. Bill Walsh with DAR to share our data and check in before heading to the airport to fly home. Aloha, it was a great trip!