By Gregg Bragg, Island Eye News Staff Writer
The staff of the South Carolina Aquarium (SCA) had their fins and flippers full in the run up to the May 27 grand opening of the new sea turtle hospital. The week prior boasted a raft of “soft” events associated with the new facility, which was famously catapulted onto the world stage with the help of the Zucker family’s $3 million donation.
“There were days when we had ladders, paint buckets, tools, construction materials, and contractors to get things out of the way minutes before [several events],” said the SCA’s Kelly Thorvalson with her customary enthusiasm.
Attendance numbers for the actual event, on what turned out to be a bright, sunny day, were something of a mystery to the uninitiated.
There is an emerging pearl of conventional wisdom circulating amongst staff at the SCA; “The aquarium is the driest place in Charleston.”
The counter intuitive statement leverages the common sense observation that walking tours of the Holy City aren’t as much fun in the rain.
Lauren McDaniel of the SCA credited an offshore storm with high attendance numbers during the same weekend last year, which the combination of the grand opening and annual celebration of World Turtle Day didn’t match.
Turtle patrol programs from Kiawah, Isle of Palms, Seabrook, and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) were on hand with boats of volunteers as the SCA also played host to World Turtle Day. It was the eighth installment of a tradition which began in 2010. Although the annual event is technically scheduled for the 23rd, May 27 fell on a Saturday and seemed a better time to highlight the occasion.
World Turtle Day was the brainchild of Susan Tellem and Marshall Thompson, who founded the American Tortoise Rescue. The group advocates humane treatment of all animals, especially seven species of endangered turtles like the Loggerhead and Diamondback Terrapin.
“World Turtle Day was started 13 years ago to increase respect and knowledge for the world’s oldest creatures. These gentle animals have been around for about 200 million years, yet they are rapidly disappearing as a result of the exotic food industry, habitat destruction, global warming and the cruel pet trade,” says Tellem on their website (tortoise.com, also on Facebook). They hope to make a number of points including;
• Never buy a turtle or tortoise from a pet shop as it increases demand from the wild.
• Never remove turtles or tortoises from the wild unless they are sick or injured.
• Remove tortoises from busy streets by sending them in the same direction they are already going – if you try to make a turtle go back, it will turn right around again.
• Write letters to legislators asking them to keep sensitive habitat preserved and to prevent off shore drilling, which can lead to more endangered sea turtle deaths.
• Report cruelty or illegal sales of turtles and tortoises to your local animal control shelter.
• It is illegal to sell any kind of turtle/tortoise under four inches throughout the U.S. And incidents should be reported to local animal control.
• Educate people about the real risk of contracting salmonella from turtles (WASH your hands).
Who better to assist in making those points, than the SCA, the DNR and a host of veteran turtle patrollers from all over the Lowcountry? Tables were set up on the first floor of the SCA with the “Great Ocean Tank” as a background. Mounds of information were passed along to aquarium visitors including the Flores family from Boston.
Boston residents are no strangers to great aquariums. The New England Aquarium is located there and famed for its glass “tunnel” under the biggest of their tanks. “We love aquariums and can’t wait to meet Caretta,” said Giselle Rivera-Flores.
Her husband Jaime Flores and their two daughters, 9-year-old Brooklyn and 6-year-old Evian, couldn’t resist donning Seabrook’s Loggerhead turtle carapace.
There’s still time to celebrate turtles even if you missed May’s festivities. The SCA is open every day and is home to Charleston’s favorite loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta. She is [soon to be] 29-year-old Loggerhead and joined the SCA 15 years ago. Caretta has been the jewel of the “Great Ocean Tank” ever since and her birthday is usually accompanied by special treats for her and guests of the aquarium.
Caretta was raised in captivity after being taken from a nesting site on a Florida beach by a couple who wanted to keep her as a pet. Caretta was first adopted by an aquarium in Canada and later moved to the SCA. She has become an object lesson in conservation.
“The [SCA] celebrates World Turtle Day each year to highlight the care and conservation of turtles and tortoises, with the goal of creating more awareness for their protection. People have been fascinated by turtles for thousands of years so this day is a perfect opportunity to highlight the many species of turtles that call South Carolina home.” concluded Thorvalson.
For more information or tickets visit scaquarium.org or call 843.577.FISH (3474).