The little turtle that could! (Harbor the sea turtle is heading back to the wild.)
(Pittsburgh) (April 2018)—After almost two years to the day that he arrived in Pittsburgh, and following an extensive rehabilitation program, Harbor the sea turtle is heading back to his home in the ocean.
Harbor is the second non-releasable turtle to be successfully rehabbed and released as part of the Zoo’s Sea Turtle Second Chance Program. Sunburst was released back to the wild in 2015.
Harbor arrived from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center with a severed spine, shattered pelvis, and no movement in his back flippers. He was deemed non-releasable.
“I was excited to accept the challenge of working with Harbor. We weren’t going to give up easily on getting him back to the ocean,” says Ms. Josianne Romasco, Sea Turtle Second Chance Coordinator. “These little turtles are resilient. I knew with Harbor it would take time, but I had a good feeling things would work out.”
Harbor’s injury to his shell resulted in a buoyant backend, a condition called bubble butt syndrome. “This means that he couldn’t keep the backend of his body down while swimming or resting on the bottom of the ocean because air bubbles were trapped in his body,” says Romasco. “This condition often affects a sea turtle’s ability to dive for food or to escape boat propellers.”
Before designing a rehabilitation program for Harbor, Romasco wanted to first observe him in the smaller, shallow quarantine pool. She wanted Harbor to show her his limitations, behaviors, movements, and his dietary preferences.
When Harbor first arrived he had weight packs on his lower back. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center had put them on to help him stabilize his body, but he kept knocking them off. Romasco noticed that even when he rested on the pool’s bottom, with his butt up and his head down, which isn’t a natural position for a sea turtle, Harbor was not showing any discomfort. “As I watched him I realized that we were treating him based on the assumption that Harbor was uncomfortable. But he wasn’t uncomfortable, he was fine. He was finding ways to adapt to his condition,” That is when Romasco made the decision that the next time the weight packs came off, they would stay off. She started to evaluate Harper’s ability to move and dive without them.
The pair spent two years together. At each stage of his rehabilitation, Harbor surpassed everyone’s expectations. After one year, Harbor was introduced to the Little Ocean tank, a 13-foot, 12 thousand gallon multi-species exhibit. Ms. Romasco wanted to see if Harbor could navigate a much larger environment, including diving to the bottom, resting on the bottom, and coming back up. Romasco felt tremendous relief when she saw that Harbor moved around the tank easily. He even managed to figure out how to rest on the bottom without floating back to the surface while he slept.
The next milestone for Harbor was the Big Ocean tank. The two-story tank is 30 foot deep and approximately 80,000 gallons. This was Harbor’s final test. If he was able to achieve the benchmarks that Ms. Romasco was looking for in water this deep, she knew he could be released back to the wild, but if he failed, he would have a forever home here at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.
“Harbor did everything I knew he could do,” says Ms. Romasco. “I was thrilled. He was so comfortable diving to the bottom of the tank and coming back up. He even found his own little spot to rest on the bottom.”
Ms. Romasco sent video and all of her paperwork on Harbor’s rehabilitation program to Florida Fish and Wildlife for evaluation and to determine if Harbor could be approved release. They agreed with Ms. Romasco’s assessment and gave Harbor the all clear to return to the wild.
“This was the ending that I was hoping for,” says Ms. Romasco. “Though I will miss him, I am excited for him to return home. He surprised all of us. He is the little turtle that could.”
The Sea Turtle Second Chance Program is now two for two in rehabilitating and releasing turtles once deemed non-releasable. “Our reputation is growing and we are now a great resource for turtle rehabilitation,” says Ms. Romasco. In fact, Florida Fish and Wildlife and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center have already provided Romasco with resumes for future candidates.
“What we are learning just from Sunburst and Harbor is enabling us to develop rehabilitation programs for other sea turtles with the goal of re-release back into the wild.”