Sea Turtle Critical Care Update: Ripple effects of busy year of rehab
Genevieve Bergemann
Gen is the Medical Analyst of the Foundation's sea turtle rehabilitation team, diving deep into the veterinary and biometric data of our turtle patients, to optimise treatments and enable speedy turtle recoveries!

The ripple effects of a successful 2021 turtle rehab year, has allowed for the release of 44 turtles back into the big blue!

Following release is a time that allows the turtle team a change of routine, preparation for the season ahead and improvement and reflection on the year past.

We’ve also been able to play ‘turtle jenga’ and most appropriately home the turtles in pools most suited to them. It has been a good month!

Below is an update on the sea turtle patients we currently have in the rehabilitation critical care unit:

NOBOMVU – Our Red Lady:

  • Arrived at TOAEF turtle rehab: 14th July 2021, from Gansbaai
  • Species: Loggerhead turtle
  • Weight: 54.9kg

In October ’21, a change of behaviour was noted by the turtle team; Nobomvu’s appetite had decreased and she was not using her front right flipper. Following this noted change, radiographs of both flippers were taken and a joint-tap (aspiration) was done. The microbial culture confirmed the diagnosis of osteomyelitis (infection of the bone) in her front right flipper.

How does a sea turtle get osteomyelitis?
The link between osteomyelitis and cold-stunned sea turtles remains unclear. Although the osteolytic lesions may occur secondary to initial injuries (entanglements/boat strikes/bites) or immunocompromised individuals. And as we know, all sea turtle’s that stand are immunocompromised to some degree. Due to chelonian’s having a slower metabolism, issues may present later than expected with mammals.

The treatment plan going forward was to move her to a smaller tank (to encourage rest) and begin pain medication and antibiotics, with the goal of eliminating infection, decreasing inflammation and pain and increasing her appetite.

It has been 3 months of active treatment and her response and progress is remarkable; her appetite has returned, there is significant reduction in swelling of her elbow joint and she is now utilizing her front right flipper. This month, repeat radiographs indicate that the osteolytic lesions have not progressed, however repeat microbial culture indicates infection is still present.

As Nobomvu is brightening once again and making use of her front right flipper, we feel confident, that with specific, continued pain medication and antibiotics, we are attending to her medical needs as actively and thoroughly as we can.

Nobomvu has a long–term medication management plan ahead and we are hopeful that during this phase of her rehab the move to the Aquarium’s I&J Ocean Exhibit will encourage her enrichment and vitality.

Dorsoventral view of healthy, left elbow joint for comparison

Dorsoventral radiographic view of right elbow joint showing lysis of the distal aspect of humerus and proximal aspects of radius and ulna

ODYSSEUS – Our Odie:

  • Arrived at TOAEF turtle rehab: 18th October 2021, from Gansbaai
  •  Species: Green turtle
  • Weight: 9.8kg

Odie is a feisty sea turtle patient, so much so that when weekly weights & measurements are done, he flips and flaps so vigorously. One would never suspect a fracture. And yet, that is exactly why dearest Odie has remained at the turtle rehab; for extra care and TLC due to a fracture noted on the distal aspect of distal phalange of digit 3.

Odies treatment has consisted of vitamins, antibiotics and pain medication. Repeat radiographs are being done to monitor the fracture, as well as hematology work to indicate the presence of infection. The medication plan going forward will be dependent on the results received.

Otherwise, Odie is enjoying his new tank and is strong and stable (and did I mention feisty too?)

HULKIE – Our Strong One:

  • Arrival at TOAEF turtle rehab: 1st November 2021 from Struisbaai
  • Species: Green turtle
  • Weight: 8.5kg

Stranded turtles on the West Coast of Africa are often hypothermic (cold-stunned) and dehydrated and one often wonders how they ended up in our care. With Hulkie, a gentle green turtle, this question of “What happened to you?”, was one that you wish you had the answer to.

Hulkie presented with head trauma, with bilateral, almost symmetrical lesions on her head, posterior to her eyes. Radiographs were taken to evaluate the extent of damage and fractures were noted in the right maxilla.

Whilst adequately rehydrating Hulkie, pain medication was started. And surprisingly, 2 days after arriving at the rehab facility, Hulkie started eating.

Consequently, repeat radiographs have been taken to monitor bone health and healing.

Lateral view of right side of head on arrival

Lateral view of right side of head January ’22

TURBO – Our hope:

  • Arrival at TOAEF turtle rehab: 22nd September 2021 from de Hoop
  • Species: Green turtle
  • Weight: 12.1kg

Turbo, fittingly named, had a speedy recovery. After the initial arrival treatment management there was no indicators of underlying issues. Radiographs, blood work, feeding, gut movement and behavior were all clear and Turbo was cleared for release in December.

Due to sea conditions, the release date was moved and occurred in January. On the 6th of January a bump appeared, quite suddenly, on the back of Turbo’s neck. Turbo has therefore remained in our care, so that treatment can begin. (Maybe it was a blessing in disguise that release was delayed).
The bump was aspirated and sent off for biochemistry. The results show no infection is present.

The treatment plan thus far has been to not intervene as no pain is indicated on palpation of the bump and otherwise, Turbo has changed behavioral/feeding habits. As of today, the bump has not decreased in size and so iatrogenic intervention may be our next approach.

Off-side image showing the height of bump on neck

Hatchling #4: MYRTLE (the turtle) CRONJE

  • Arrival at TOAEF turtle rehab: 29th March 2021 from Stillbaai
  • Species: Loggerhead turtle
  • Weight: 868kg

A special loggerhead hatchling who arrived early in our turtle hatchling season last year. Hatchling #4 has grown more than x10 his arrival weight of 64g, now weighing a solid 868g.

#4 has remained in the care of the turtle rehabilitation due to intermittent discontinued usage of the front right flipper, since May ’21. On radiographic evaluation no muscular/skeletal abnormalities were visible. No swelling palpable of joint, but reduced extension of the elbow joint, with mild reduction in extension/rotation of joint visible.

There has been creativity in our approach to treatment for little #4; he has received opioid & NSAID medication, as well as topical and oral Arnica. The treatment plan for January has been to move to him to a bigger tank with lots of sunshine, monitored flipper usage and continued dive-feeding activities, without the intervention of pain medication.

Hatchling #13: EDDIE

  • Arrival at TOAEF turtle rehab: 6th April 2021 from Struisbaai
  • Species: Loggerhead turtle
  • Weight: 336g

Hatchling #13 is one of those turtle patients that just needs extra food, extra sunshine, extra vitamins and extra shell scrubs.

There is no illness or injury we are actively addressing with this little one, we are just giving him extra time to improve his body condition score and monitor his clinical parameters.

KAI – Our spinner:

  • Arrival at TOAEF turtle rehab: 1st November 2020
  • Species: Loggerhead turtle
  • Weight: 5.2kg

This little Loggerhead hatchling arrived asymmetrical, more so than most, swimming almost vertically with left side down, right side up.
Buoyancy disorders in sea turtles can be indicative of various ailments, quite commonly symptomatic to injuries, gastric issues, neurological disorders or respiratory diseases.

Needing to address the abnormal swimming behaviour, the turtle team decided to place weight on the right marginal aspect of Kai’s carapace to try normalize flotation. The steel putty weight placement was done within 2 weeks of Kai’s arrival, and this assisted in correcting the abuoyancy and Kai’s stressed behaviour decreased noticeably.

Kai has therefore had the supplementary weight applied to his carapace for the past 2 years.

Kai has received visits from physiotherapists, undergone neurology tests, had multiple radiographs and CT scans.

Late last year our veterinary team performed a bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL). This procedure is a lung-wash, which allows one to extract fluid from the airways to perform cytological and bacterial examinations. This informs you of the pathogens you are dealing with and how to most effectively treat them.

Currently Kai is intermittedly receiving pulmonary physiotherapy, the coupage technique, from turtle behaviourist Alex, and receiving exercise therapy in our medical pool.

Alongside Kai’s strengthening & enrichment, we are actively addressing his treatment plan, acting on it from a multi-modal approach and allowing him time. Often that is what our sea turtle patients need, time & TLC and time.

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