"If I was a gambler, I would place my money on Harbor, the little sea turtle," says Josianne Romasco, Sea Turtle Second Chance Program Coordinator. "And I'd come out a big winner."
Harbor, a green sea turtle, was hit by a boat propeller in a waterway in Florida. The strike severed his spine, shattered his pelvis, and paralyzed his back flippers. He was lucky to be alive.
The injury to Harbor’s lower shell resulted in a buoyant backend, a condition called bubble butt syndrome. He wasn’t able to keep the backend of his body down while swimming or resting on the bottom of the ocean due to air bubbles trapped in his body. After spending several weeks at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, caretakers feared Harbor wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild with his extensive injuries. Harbor was deemed as a non-releasable turtle.
In 2016, Harbor arrived at his forever home at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and met Romasco, who would oversee his rehabilitation for the next few years.
Romasco started by observing Harbor in a smaller, shallow quarantine pool at the PPG Aquarium to learn about his limitations, behaviors, movements, and his dietary preferences. One of the things Romasco noticed first was that when Harbor arrived, he was wearing weight packs on his lower back. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center had put them on to help stabilize his body. But it seemed that Harbor didn’t like them. He kept knocking them off. At one point when Harbor was resting on the pool’s bottom, with his head down and his butt in the air, something struck Romasco. It wasn’t Harbor who was uncomfortable – he had found a way to adapt to his condition. However, his condition made caretakers uncomfortable because it was a strange position for a sea turtle to be in. It was then that Romasco silently promised Harbor and herself that she would rehabilitate him and get him back to his natural environment.
Harbor went through a series of other tests and trainings throughout his rehabilitation, including the Underwater Treadmill Challenge. By placing Harbor in a bigger, deeper tank with a strong circular current, Romasco could asses how well Harbor chased his food and maintained his foraging position on the bottom of the tank. At first, this proved to be a challenge for the little sea turtle, but neither Romasco nor Harbor gave up.
Romasco introduced a seagrass bed that she had designed for another sea turtle, Sunburst, who was also rehabilitated and released back to the wild. With the addition of the seagrass, Harbor not only figured out how to swim with the constant current but he also learned to dive to the bottom of the pool to reach it, ultimately helping his lungs better develop.
After spending a year behind-the-scenes, Harbor was introduced to the Little Ocean Tank, a 13 foot, 12 thousand gallon multi-species exhibit. Romasco didn’t realize that she was holding her breath until she exhaled with relief when she saw Harbor moving 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. To ensure that Harbor would dive for food, Romasco invented the turtle kabab. She would attach cut vegetables and lettuce so Harbor would dive for food, similar to what he would do in the wild.
Harbor’s final test was the Big Ocean Tank, a two story, 30 foot tank with approximately 80,000 gallons. This tank also had bigger fish to contend with, a situation he would face in the wild. If he could achieve this final benchmark, Romasco knew he would be a great candidate for release back to the wild. If he failed, he would have a forever home here at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. But Harbor did everything she knew he could do. He dove effortlessly to the bottom and had no problems coming back up. He even found his own little spot to rest on the bottom.
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 for release. To everyone’s delight, Florida Fish and Wildlife agreed with Romasco’s assessment and gave Harbor the all clear to return to the wild.
While Harbot has not yet been released back into the wild, Romasco and the team are hopeful the strong swimmer will return to the sea very soon.