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Shedd Aquarium Honors 20 Years with Rescued Green Sea Turtle, Nickel

An Iconic Ambassador Animal Inspires Millions to Take Action for Our Share Blue Planet

April 20, 2023

Green sea turtle Nickel accepts scratches on her chin from a trainer.

Nickel, a rescued green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), found a permanent home and lifelong care at Shedd Aquarium 20 years ago on April 23, 2003. Since then, millions of guests from around the world have come face-to-face with Nickel. She has become one of the most iconic, well-known animals at Shedd. Noticed by her unusual swimming posture with her head down and rump up, it serves as a continuous reminder of her rescued status and the challenges facing sea turtles in the wild.

“It’s an honor to work with an endangered species and to share Nickel’s rescue story with guests to further educate around threats sea turtles face and inspire ways to protect them,” said Brendan Gilloffo, aquarist at Shedd Aquarium and lead caretaker for Nickel. “She continues to thrive at the aquarium receiving lots of leafy greens, moving throughout the habitat, participating in training with her caretakers and enjoying tactile on her shell.”

Her rescue story began in 1998 when a marine biologist spotted the injured turtle struggling to stay afloat along the Gulf Coast. Suffering from a deep gash to the rear of her shell from a motorboat propeller, she was treated in a rehabilitation center in Florida, but extensive injuries resulted in permanent problems that resulted in her being unable to return to the ocean.

When arriving at Shedd in 2003, the animal care team conducted an extensive physical exam. During an X-ray, veterinarians discovered a 1975 nickel lodged in the turtle’s esophagus. Once the coin was removed, Nickel had earned her endearing name. During a CT scan, animal health determined the buoyancy issue was determined to be a permanent neurological injury right next to her spinal cord.

Today, despite these challenges, Nickel is a healthy turtle that can maneuver her habitat and dive all the way to the bottom. The animal care team will sink a head of lettuce in Caribbean Reef to imitate feeding from seagrass on the bottom of the ocean like her wild sea turtle counterparts. This is one of many ways that caretakers provide variety in training and enrichment to encourage her to swim and work her muscles.

Green sea turtles are classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The Endangered Species Act is celebrating its 50th anniversary that provides an opportunity to reflect on the progress made and the work ahead for protecting our nation's endangered species and their habitats. Guests can take action for the aquarium animal world by advocating with Shedd Aquarium by signing up for Surge email alerts, restore local habitats during Shedd Aquarium Action Days and supporting Shedd’s mission through visitation, membership and donation.

VISUALS: Get a behind-the-scenes look at a training session with Nickel and Gilloffo. From above Caribbean Reef, caretakers work with the rescued sea turtle to swim to a designated target. From there, some days might just be a feeding, others could be working on husbandry behaviors that allow Nickel to participate in her own healthcare and sometimes it’s just enrichment in the form of tactical or play.
Photo Credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
Video Credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Sam Cejtin