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Happy was a juvenile hawksbill turtle that was found floating listlessly in Great Bay at the Ritz Carlton, in June of 2014. He was getting tossed around in the waves, not moving at all. Erica, Coral World’s vet tech and STAR Network responder, brought him back to Coral World. She put him in a pool of water to observe his behavior. He wasn’t moving at all, just breathing every so often. There were no external injuries, he looked completely healthy but he was very, very thin and dehydrated. Erica took him in to the local veterinarian for x-rays. They built a special little brace to hold him up-right so they could get a good view, called the cranial caudal view. It lets you see the lungs better than other angles and is much easier to do with smaller turtles like this one.

The x-ray showed a lot of opaque matter in the turtle’s intestines in both the cranial caudal and the dorsal ventral films. That is actually, extremely typical of a juvenile hawksbill turtle that size. He was impacted from eating a lot of sand and shells.

After they hatch, sea turtles spend the first few years out in the open ocean. They float around eating anything that floats by, like little jellyfish, salps and fish eggs. Once they grow to the size of a dinner plate, around 2 to 5 years, they come out of the pelagic (open ocean) environment and head back to the coast. Unfortunately, when the sea turtles get to the coast, they don’t know what they are supposed to be eating. They just know that floating out in the ocean was not getting them enough food. Sea turtles will try everything until they figure out that they eat sea sponges. Hawksbills, especially, are notorious for eating a lot of shells and sand. Some sea turtles end up eating foreign bodies, such as plastics and bags.

When sea turtles eat non-edible things their bodies can’t digest them and they get impacted. This is what happened to Happy. The best therapy for an impacted sea turtle is fluids. Erica paired that with antibiotic therapy, because they weren’t sure what exactly he had eaten. It was possible that he could lacerate his gut as things began to pass. Being impacted made Happy lose his appetite, so he was assist fed at first. As the sea turtle dehydrates, water is pulled out of the digestive system and into the rest of the body for redistribution. When that happens, you end up with all these really hard fecal matters that get stuck in the turtle. Sometimes enemas are given to help loosen things up, but Happy didn’t need an enema.

He did quite well with therapy. He started passing the things that he had eaten, it was all sand, shells and stuff, there were no foreign bodies. He started moving around, eating and diving. The Sea Trek guides would find rocks with sponges on them to give Happy. At first he was not fond of sponges. They had to put other food on top of the sponge and pull it away when he went to eat. Then he would get a mouthful of sponge. Eventually, all he wanted to eat was sponges and he refused other foods.

We had to go and get sponges, I had the Sea Trek divers out finding rocks with sponges on them, and introduce him to his natural food, which is sea sponges. What we would do is feed him right on the rock, I have tongs that I would use and put the food right on the rock, on the sponge and what he would do is go after the food and I would move the food and he would chomp the sponge and get mouthfuls of sponge. At first he’d spit them out. He was like “what is that? It’s not what I wanted” We did that for a while and eventually he associated that with “hey no, actually that sponge is pretty great.” Once he got to feeding on sponge primarily, he refused offered food. He was eating just off the rocks. He was cleared for release. We took him back to Cowpet, and he TOOK OFF. He ran so fast. I’m out!

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