This Green sea turtle is somehow overcoming overwhelming odds and staying alive. Vancouver Aquarium staff have been treating him since he washed up near Ucluelet last month.

Comber the sea turtle on road to recovery

A Green sea turtle is miraculously recovering after washing up on Wickaninnish Beach last month.

The turtle was hypothermic and in rough shape when he arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium on Jan. 23 but the aquarium’s head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena told the Westerly that the turtle, dubbed Comber, has made strides and moved into a larger pool last week.

“He seems to like that in terms of being able to swim around a little bit more and being a little bit more active; he’s certainly very aware, he’s watching us now so all of his faculties are coming back and I’m pretty happy so far,” Haulena said adding his optimism is mixed with caution.

“The biggest one in the last few days is making sure the digestive track works all the way through and that’s basically watching for poop…When any animal strands, bad things have happened to this animal. We know from all the years doing this stuff that things can go wrong at any time and you might discover things that the animal is hiding early on that all of a sudden manifest.”

Survival was initially considered a long shot for the tropical turtle, whose natural habitats are closer to Mexico and Hawaii than the West Coast of Canada.

“Once they start getting caught into water that becomes progressively cooler, their whole physiology slows down into more or less a comatose kind of state,” Haulena said.

“It is often very difficult to tell whether they’re even alive or not so you’re bringing back an animal that has kind of almost gone away, it’s brain is somewhere else, it’s slowed itself down so far that it’s barely functioning at any detectable level…So when you do kind of see them responding to what you’re doing, it’s a really great feeling.”

Haulena praised his team’s effectiveness at overcoming the odds so far.

“The team that I have the privilege to work with is absolutely phenomenal and I’ve seen these guys shine in the most dire situations, when we’ve been faced with animals that have had no chance, when the odds are stacked up against them, I’ve seen them come together, work as a team all nightlong, 24-hours a day for long stretches of time,” he said.

“These guys are awesome and it’s heart and soul, blood, sweat, tears; they just go forth and do whatever they can.”

He said the aquarium needed to make rapid preparations when they heard the turtle had been found near Ucluelet.

“Once we get that report over at the aquarium the crew mobilizes very quickly,” he said.

“The key factors for a turtle that separate them from some of the other animals that we deal with is we have to warm them up very, very, slowly and very, very, precisely.”

Comber’s body temperature was 11.2 C when Haulena first met him and this needed to be raised, by less than 2 C per day, to at least 20 C.

Haulena was amazed by the aquarium’s engineers who managed to set up a habitat in time for the turtle to move in.

“Our engineering staff went bonkers trying to get a habitat ready for this guy,” he said.

“We were trying to set up a bigger habitat in a section of the aquarium that hasn’t fully come online so they were dealing with all the problems associated with that; it’s just like starting up a brand new house but add a few layers to that. They’re dealing with the turning on the lights for the first time kind of scenario and getting all that done really, really, fast.”

Once the turtle arrived, Haulena’s crew got to work with fluid support, antibiotics and frequent monitoring and the results have been very positive so far.

“He’s been progressing right along where he should be,” Haulena said. “If he actually could read, it looks like he read the book and he’s following along with us, which is great. So far he’s hit every marker that we want.”

While Haulena has treated many Green sea turtles in his career, he said Comber is the first distressed sea turtle to receive treatment at the aquarium in at least 10 years.

He hopes to see the animal released back into the wild.

“Because this animal is coming from the wild and it should be in good enough shape to be able to take care of itself, if we could turn it around, it’s a release candidate,” he said.

He added there will be hoops to jump through as Comber is a threatened species and must be transported across the border to San Diego where the water is warm enough for him to be released.

“That means he needs a lot of paperwork that sometimes can take a long time, and sometimes can never happen, and that’s unfortunate but all those things are designed and put into place to protect animals from being traded and animal from being illegally harvested and that sort of business,” he said.

“But on the flip side of things, when you’re trying to do something really good for these guys sometimes that permitting process actually interferes a little bit with trying to do the best you can.”

While Comber is doing well, Haulena said his condition could change on a dime and nerves won’t be calmed until the animal is back in the ocean.

“You never stop worrying, particularly about a rescue animal. They always are going to be complicated. I guess you relax when you get the animal transported to the next facility to a certain extent and then, of course, when you do hear about the animal being released, or when you’re there watching the animal be released, that’s where you finally go ‘Okay, It’s all out of my hands now,’” he said.

He said Comber has won the hearts of the aquarium’s staff and students.

“It’s kind of cool to see people who have not had the opportunity to see something like that up close, see it in intensive care and see him getting better,” Haulena said. “You kind of relive all that fun magic when you were young and wanting to do this kind of thing so it’s cool; it’s very inspirational.”