This story was originally published on July 22, 2013.
On Nickel’s first day in the 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef habitat on July 22, 2003, she swam among the fishes, ate a hearty meal, found a cozy place to nap between two elkhorn corals and, during presentations, negotiated the diver’s air line with ease. She took to her new home as if she’d always lived there. Only a few guests noticed Nickel’s unusual swimming posture—head down, rump up.
It was why Nickel had found a home at Shedd.
On July 1, 1998, a marine biologist spotted a half-grown green sea turtle floating nearly lifeless among mangroves on Florida’s gulf coast. A deep gash ran from the rear edge to the center of her carapace, or upper shell, an unmistakable wound from a boat propeller.
She was taken to a sea turtle medical center in Clearwater where she was X-rayed to evaluate the extent of the injury and to look for internal damage. Her shell wound was treated, and she received injections of fluids and antibiotics. Once stabilized, she was placed in a shallow pool so veterinarians could assess her swimming ability. Even after months of rehabilitation, however, she continued to have problems controlling her buoyancy. Permanently impaired, the turtle could not be returned to the ocean, and she became a resident at the center.
Fast forward five years. A one-time Shedd volunteer now involved in sea turtle rescue in Florida contacted the aquarium to suggest that Shedd look into acquiring the rehabbed sea turtle for the Caribbean Reef. Shedd worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and in April 2003, aquarium collections manager Michelle Sattler picked up the sea turtle at O’Hare.
At Shedd, the turtle received a comprehensive physical exam that included taking radiographs to look for the cause of her buoyancy problem. “We thought maybe one of her lungs was punctured and collapsed, which would let air into the rest of the body cavity,” said then-Shedd veterinarian Natalie Mylniczenko. “That’s common in sea turtles that have been hit by boats.”
“We thought maybe one of her lungs was punctured and collapsed, which would let air into the rest of the body cavity. That’s common in sea turtles that have been hit by boats.”Natalie Mylniczenko, former Shedd veterinarian
A CT scan showed that the turtle’s lungs were fine, but radiographs revealed another problem: a coin lodged in her esophagus. It’s hard to say how or when she ingested the coin—sea turtles will eat anything that vaguely resembles their natural food, including sea jelly-like plastic bags—but it had to come out. At Shedd’s animal hospital, Dr. Natalie anesthetized the turtle and, using an endoscope with a small grabber tool, removed a 1975 nickel from 12 inches down the turtle’s throat. The sea turtle lost an obstruction and gained a name.
As for Nickel’s buoyant back end, the problem was neurological. “The injury was right next to her spinal cord, and it’s permanent,” the veterinarian said. “Otherwise, she’s a healthy turtle. And when you touch her feet, she maneuvers toward you for a massage. You can tell she likes it.”
The foot massage became the “Nickel tickle,” used in training sessions as a reward.
“She still loves it,” says Michelle Sattler, who is in charge of the Caribbean Reef. Michelle has cared for Nickel since 2003. “She can curl her back flippers around your hand and hold it.”
While the turtle’s buoyancy challenges have not changed in 10 years, Sattler says, “She’s always been able to do everything she has needed to do.”
Like other Shedd animals, Nickel has regular training sessions. Since
Michelle began working with her about eight years ago, Nickel has
learned many husbandry behaviors. She identifies and swims to her shape,
a yellow circle with black stripes, including when it’s held up to the
glass from outside the exhibit. “That’s apparently difficult for many
animals to learn, but Nickel got it in a week,” she says.
But what Michelle calls Nickel’s pièce de rèsistance is learning to swim onto a specially designed scale so she can be weighed—an important procedure in her regular health care. It was a seven-year process, not because Nickel didn’t get it, but because the scale designs just weren’t right for her. Until now.
Last week she swam onto a submerged platform attached by ropes to a winch over the Caribbean Reef. Nickel positioned her head and flippers between the ropes so that she felt comfortable and secure, and the platform was lifted out of the water for a weight.
“I am so proud of her,” Michelle says. “This was a career goal for me, and she made me so happy when she did it perfectly.”
You can wish learn more about sea turtles during the daily Caribbean Reef dive presentations.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor