By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
Photos by Barb Bergwerf
On Tuesday May 10 at 4:30 p.m., the beach at Isle of Palms County Park was full to capacity as hundreds of well-wishers came out to watch five loggerhead turtles, including one that was blind, as they were released back to the wild.
The release marks 187 threatened and endangered sea turtles rehabilitated and released into the wild by the Sea Turtle Rescue Program.
Among the five now healthy turtles returning home, one had a particular connection to the islands. Boyles, a male juvenile, came into the hospital incredibly debilitated with damage to his shell after he was found floating in the Folly River in July of 2014. Two fishermen spotted him, noticing the turtle behaving oddly and being unable to dive.
Boyles had sustained a severe compression fracture to the shell, likely caused by a boat strike, which had left him with lockjaw, brain trauma and without the ability to see. This combination meant the turtle was unable to eat and it was unlikely he would ever be able to return to the wild.
The Aquarium teamed up with veterinary ophthalmologist and Sullivan’s Island resident Dr. Anne Cook, of Animal Eye Care of the Lowcountry, to remove cataracts present in both eyes in the hopes of improving his eyesight enough to find his food, but to no avail. Boyles was deemed unreleasable and, after it looked unlikely that a home could be found for him, his future was not promising. It was then long-time Aquarium and Island Turtle Team volunteer and Isle of Palms resident Barb Gobien stepped up.
Gobien felt sure that with one-on-one care, the turtle could be trained to find his own food, a requirement for release.
Even though she has her own home décor business, Gobien dedicated six months to visiting Boyles every day and training him to feed correctly.
“We had been tong feeding him on top of the water for over a year and he was used to that, so I had to teach him to go to the bottom and search for food, but it finally paid off,” she said. “It’s just amazing that he kept advancing. When I saw him starting to chase blue crab I thought ‘Oh my God!’ That’s the key to releasing any turtle.”
On release day, Gobien was so happy for Boyles. “That was my goal from day one, but I really, really, really didn’t expect to accomplish it. I saw signs early on but I didn’t think it would ever be good enough.” She was very glad to be wrong.
“It was a good day for Boyles, this whole story is really about him, it’s not me, I was just the delivery of food. I just wanted him to have the chance that every creature deserves.”
Alongside Boyles, four other turtles were also released. Discovery, a juvenile loggerhead sea turtle, was accidentally caught in a trawl net in the Charleston Harbor by the SCDNR Education Vessel Discovery in July of last year.
Once aboard, biologists immediately knew the turtle was sick. At the hospital, vets discovered a fractured femur and massive separation at the hip joint. With 10 months of restorative care Discovery was fit enough to go home.
Reece, a large adult female loggerhead sea turtle, was also found in July mired in sand at the high tide line at Yawkey Wildlife Preserve. Hundreds of marine leeches contributed to the anemic state Reece was found in. Today, Reece weighs 215 pounds and is in optimum health.
Chaz and Quincy, two small juvenile loggerhead sea turtles, were part of a massive stranding event along the New England coast in January of this year.
Both turtles were found near death and suffering from hypothermia after a severe cold front hit Massachusetts’ coastal waters. After receiving medical treatment necessary for a full recovery at the Aquarium hospital, they were able to be released in the warm waters off the Isle of Palms.
If you find a sick or injured sea turtle, contact the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) sea turtle hotline at (800) 922-5431. You may also help care for sea turtles in recovery in the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program by going to scaquarium.org and making a donation.