Ponce Inlet’s Turtle Hospital Offers Rehab to Injured Sea Turtles and Newborn ‘Washbacks’

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Ponce Inlet’s Turtle Hospital Offers Rehab to Injured Sea Turtles and Newborn ‘Washbacks’

Three young Loggerhead turtles who had been nursed back to health at Ponce Inlet’s Marine Science Center were released back to the ocean last week.

The sea turtles, who were given the names Seymour, Parker, and Zee, were initially rescued from nearby beaches. All three turtles had been found sick, dehydrated and anemic, and one of the turtles arrived with a hook in the corner of his mouth.

The marine center where the three Loggerheads recuperated is one of a handful of turtle hospitals and rehabilitation centers in Florida. Since 2002, the center’s staff has nursed nearly 900 juvenile and adult sea turtles and more than 15,000 hatchlings and “washbacks.”

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Seymour, Parker, and Zee are considered juveniles or sub-adults and after their stay at the marine center, they weighed about 55, 85 and 130 pounds, respectively. Larger turtles like these can be released back to the ocean from the beach once they are deemed healthy. However, hatchlings who are stranded or washed in on storms or strong winds – “washbacks” – cannot be released from the beach. They must be nursed and then taken out to the Sargasso Sea by boat and released.

After hatching, sea turtles have only a brief window of time to make it to the Sargassum seaweed line, or Sargasso Sea, which borders the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean. From Ponce Inlet, the Sargassum weed line is about 40 miles offshore.

Sue Usiatynski, who educates the public and works with the turtles, explained to visitors that hatchlings are born with a yolk sac in their abdomen, which they feed on for four to six days, while they frantically swim toward the haven of the Sargasso Sea.

Once they arrive, the hatchlings float on the Sargassum seaweed, which provides protection and also food, since it sustains many other kinds of marine life as well.

Washbacks and hatchlings that become disoriented, sick, or injured no longer have the yolk to sustain them on the long journey. The Marine Science Center and other sea turtle rehab facilities, like the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Jupiter, feed and care for the hatchlings and often coordinate their hatchling releases at the Sargassum weed line.

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Washback season starts Aug. 1 and runs through about November 1, said Usiatynski. Some of the washbacks are from Florida’s East Coast, and some of them are hatchlings from Florida’s West Coast – turtles who have made it around the peninsula to the Sargasso Sea off the East Coast, only to be blown back onto East Coast beaches.

Usiatynski said Volusia County has a Washback Watchers volunteer group, as well as the Volusia Flagler Turtle Patrol, and a nesting patrol. If turtle watchers see an unusual amount of Sargassum on the beaches, the Washback Watchers are alerted, and the volunteers comb through the weed looking for baby turtles that might be tangled in the seaweed. Any turtles they find are brought to the Marine Science Center for rehab before they are once again returned to the Sargasso Sea.

Photo credits: Sue Usiatynski and Christine Janesko

Sources: Marine Science Center, NOAA

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