Continuing with our three-part series on “what we do here,” this week we’re covering the basics of rehabilitation — getting sick and injured sea turtles back home. Most of the sick and wounded coming through our doors can generally be grouped into a few categories of injury cause: predatory (shark or other natural enemy), human interaction (boat strike, prop wounds and fishing gear entanglement), pollution of their habitat (plastic waste, litter, toxic chemicals, balloons), cold-stuns (hypothermia) and finally the “Barnacle Bills,” the trickiest to treat. Barnacle Bill turtles are just what you might imagine: They’re covered everywhere (carapace, plastron, head and flippers) with barnacles, algae, leeches — if it’s in the water and can attach itself to a slow-moving turtle, they’ve got it on them. And mud. It’s not until you wash off all the mud and other gunk that you can really determine if there are injuries underneath.

Turtles arriving without paperwork are evaluated, measured and weighed; and the stranding information required by the federal government for endangered species is completed. Any turtles accompanied by that paperwork can skip the weighing, measuring etc. All new patients are admitted to Sea Turtle Sick Bay where they are quarantined in individual tanks for a minimum of 40 days per U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations. These patients need critical care treatment by our staff. They are sick, stressed and need the relative quiet of a small room and a small tank to keep them calm. They are treated daily, sometimes twice a day. Most often they are taken out of their tanks for the treatment, which starts with a soapy bath, thorough rinse and additional flushing of wounded areas with syringes of saline (or sterile water.) Once they are clean and dry we apply a betadine solution (think the old orang-y iodine) as an all-over wash, as well as further flushing of any wounds. Betadine helps to reduce bacterial infection. A clean turtle is a happy turtle, and they smell a lot better, too!

From that point the treatments can take many forms depending on why a turtle is here. Some turtles are placed on protocols of oral and/or injected antibiotics. Some turtles are severely anemic and dehydrated and need IV fluids, including liquid vitamin supplements. Many turtles are radiographed (X-rayed) to look for foreign objects such as fish hooks, broken bones and things like bone lesions. These radiographs are very helpful with the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of the turtles. Other medications are administered as prescribed and include things such as anti-fungal and parasitic treatments. Alarmingly, we are seeing more and more patients who are showing resistance to treatments that should work to clear up infections — just like what’s happening to us humans. Clearly years of flushing outdated meds down the drain, which eventually end up in our oceans, is not a smart plan.

Topical treatment of wounds range from simple application of a little triple antibiotic cream to hour-long sessions spent in a tank or on the lab table. Sometimes the spinal cord and internal organs are exposed and need the gentlest of hands and the absolute undivided attention of our volunteers to keep from doing further damage. A water pick can be used to flush dirt and other debris from deep wounds. Once cleaned the exposed areas are covered with one of our miracle salves: SSD, silver sulfadiazine, an antibiotic that fights bacteria and yeast. Large, open wounds are covered with a Tegaderm dressing to keep the area dry between treatments.

Sometimes we use nature to help heal our turtles. Several years ago (with the approval of Dr. Harms) we began to treat wounds with honey, and we happened to have a source for the unaltered stuff right out of the hive. Nancy Fahey (hospital volunteer and director of Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project) brought us jars from her father’s hives. (You might remember a previous story we did on him and how we use his honey.) The honey treatment is very time-consuming, a minimum of 30 minutes and up to an hour. A volunteer has to sit with the turtle and sometimes re-apply honey as it seeps into the wound and works its magic. Not all turtles get this sweet treatment; sometimes it’s just not applicable to their condition. But we can attest to the remarkable healing powers of this golden goo. In fact, we now have two hives of our own, so when we need honey it’s just a short walk away!

Of course there are the exceptions and special cases that require not only our extensive experience but also our willingness to learn how to use new applications. Years ago, in the old hospital, we learned the value of physical therapy for sea turtles. Flippers that are stiff from injury, muscle atrophy and scar tissue can regain an acceptable range of motion when our staff performs turtle-like movements on them daily. And these critters also get about 30 minutes of swim time in the therapy pool to go along with the manual manipulation. Last year we began cold laser therapy on selected patients, again under the guidance of Dr. Harms. Remember that article? Results have exceeded our expectations and we continue using the therapy on turtles not only with bone lesions, but certain other types of wounds.

While not all injuries or illnesses can be treated without advanced medical intervention (surgery and cataract removal for example) the turtles still come to us for their after-procedure care. People often ask how long turtles stay with us. It depends on why and when they arrived. Sometimes it’s a matter of days, and sometimes they’re with us for years. When a turtle is off daily treatments and has been cleared by Dr. Harms to move to the “big house” (Sea Turtle Bay) they still receive daily care (lots of TLC, food, supplements and cleaning) by our volunteers. These are the turtles you see from our observation ramp during your visit. It’s their final stop before going home, and we’ll cover that, the release, next time.

Beach Training Classes Scheduled

Director of Beach Operations Terry Meyer has scheduled two training sessions for anybody interested in joining the Topsail Turtle Project. “Beach walkers” begin daily patrols of Topsail beaches May 1, the official start of nesting season, and continue through August. They also participate in the hatching process as “nest sitters.” The training sessions will be held at the Surf City Welcome Center on April 5 from 1 to 3:30 p.m. and also on April 12 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. You must be available to walk along an assigned route (about a mile) one day a week throughout nesting season. Plan on attending one of the training sessions for a great introduction into the world of sea turtles and more information about the beach program. Contact Terry at 910-470-2880 if you have a specific question or concern about the sessions.

Hospital tours resume soon

Our plans are to resume our tours with our two-day schedule in early April, barring any late deluge of cold-stuns patients! Tour days and hours will be Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. Stay tuned to this column and our Facebook page for the official announcement of our 2017 season opening!

Not quite spring

We continue to be blessed with an easy winter, but March looks like it be coming in with a bit of a roar. Please be on the lookout for any turtle you see stranded on the beach or in marshy areas. It could be a victim of cold-stunning. It may look dead but don’t assume that it is just because it is not moving. Gently pick it up and relocate it to an unheated area like your garage or car. Do not try to warm it up as a quick rise in body temperature will send it into shock. It’s important that the critter not lay exposed on the beach for hours, subject to weather and predators. Call our Director of Beach Operations Terry Meyer at 910-470-2880, Hospital Director Jean Beasley at 910-470-2800 or the State of NC hotline for stranded, sick and injured turtles at 252-241-7367 (picks up 24/7) or our hospital during operating hours: 910-329-0222. If you are local we will quickly send one of our volunteers to retrieve the hatchling and refer it to us for follow-up care at the hospital.

Questions, comments, suggestions?

Please direct any questions, comments or suggestions re: this column to me at


Karen Sota is the volunteer media coordinator for the Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach.