A miraculous rescue and recovery has Comber the green sea turtle homeward bound.
Comber boarded a plane in Vancouver on April 20 and headed to San Diego where he will be released back into the wild.
“It’s so much fun when all this actually works out,” the Vancouver Aquarium’s head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena told the Westerly News. “There are a lot of animals that don’t make it; that’s an absolutely normal part of the game and we all know that and we all know to accept that. But, at the same time, man oh man is it ever fun when a plan comes together, as the A-Team used to say.”
The 35 kilogram turtle, believed to be around 15 years old, was hypothermic when he was found washed up on Wickaninnish Beach—significantly off course from the tropical animal’s Mexico and Hawaii habitats—on Jan 23.
He was discovered and reported by Ucluelet local Liisa Nielsen and communications struck up immediately between Pacific Rim National Park staff, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Vancouver Aquarium to rescue Comber and transport him to the aquarium’s hospital.
Haulena said his confidence in Comber’s chances was not high and he noted none of three Olive Ridley sea turtles that washed up around the same area in 2013 survived.
“Once animals strand up, whether it’s a dolphin, a porpoise, a sea turtle or a sea lion, things are really, really, bad so the prognosis tends to be very poor,” he said. “ You always hope for the best, but we’ve been here before. There’s all sorts of things that could go wrong and the odds are stacked up against you.”
A cold-stunned Comber arrived at the aquarium with a body temperature of just 11.2 C, which needed to be raised slowly and meticulously to at least 20 C for him to have a shot at making it.
“When the animal arrives here, that’s when the team really goes into action. We give antibiotics and we start to give some gastric protectants as well. That gastrointestinal tract has not been moving for some time so we give drugs to help with motility as well as relieve ulcers and treat potential ulcers,” Haulena said.
“We start the monitoring, do the ultrasounds, look for a heartbeat, which we did see and that was fantastic albeit very, very, slow.”
Haulena was thrilled to see Comber’s condition continue to improve during treatment.
“There are milestones on: when the heartbeat starts to increase, when movement starts to increase, when the animal starts becoming aware and he hit every milestone…He was absolutely a model patient for us, which was great,” Haulena said.
“That’s not to say that things can’t go wrong during that time, even when he starts to look good, and it’s not to say that things can’t go wrong even now; they can and that’s the nature of the game. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. There are a lot of underlying problems animals have that they don’t like to show us and those can be a problem further down the line but, right now, today, getting our reports back from our team on the transport, I think everything is going absolutely fantastic for him.”
Haulena was thrilled with his team’s efforts to produce a win.
“The people I work with are the very best people in the world at what they do so I expect nothing less than the best from them and they never ever let me down,” he said. “They put their heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into every case and that was what happened with Comber and it’s awesome to see that work play out.”
He is stoked to see his patient successfully heading back home.
“On a very personal level, it absolutely feels good. This is the kind of thing that all of us who work in aquariums love to do. We love to use our knowledge to save a life,” he said.
“Here’s something that’s doing really, really, terribly but here’s us working really hard and seeing that work result in a positive outcome. It’s very, very, rewarding on that level. There’s certainly a deep animal welfare issue. There’s an animal suffering, we can do something about it. The resources are here the expertise is here so I think we should do something about it.”
He added the experience his team gained by treating Comber could prove invaluable to future rescues.
“With every animal we get better,” he said. “There’s always learning opportunities and, for sure, this was a great example of that.”
If everything goes smoothly here on out, Comber would become the first rescued sea turtle the aquarium has ever released, though he is not the first one the aquarium has revived.
Schoona, a female green sea turtle that washed up near Prince Rupert in 2005, has lived at the aquarium since her rescue. While he was not working at the aquarium when Schoona came in, Haulena suggested the complicated process involved with shipping endangered animals over international borders likely bogged down her chances at reentering the wild.
“The rules are very important and they’re there for a very good reason but sometimes they do get in the way of good things,” he said. “They’re designed so people aren’t trading in wildlife illegally, so they’re very, very, tight.”
He was relieved to see Comber maneuver through permits and regulations smoothly.
“The conversations started as soon as Comber hit the door. We started talking to DFO and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services,” he said. “We had time to start the permitting process and everybody’s been so supportive and so fantastic on both sides of the border. It certainly took some time and a lot of effort by a lot of folks, but all those permits did come into place.”
Comber will be released off San Diego’s coast in September and Haulena hopes to track his progress.
“It’s certainly going to be incredibly interesting to all of us to see what happens to him,” he said.
He added the fact Comber’s arrival was reported immediately and was followed by effective communication between the Park, DFO and aquarium was a “huge” boost to the turtle’s chances.
“That without a doubt was a major factor in this animal’s survival,” he said.
Anyone who spots marine life in distress should immediately report their sighting to DFO at 1-800-465-4336.