This story was originally published in 2013 to commemorate Nickel’s 10-year anniversary at Shedd. It has been updated 10 years later in 2023 for Nickel’s 20-year arrival anniversary.
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 and found a cozy place to nap between two elkhorn corals. She took to her new home as if she’d always lived there. Guests quickly noticed Nickel’s unusual swimming posture — head down, rump up.
It was why Nickel had come to Shedd.
On July 1, 1998, a marine biologist spotted a young adult 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.
Five years later, Shedd worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to provide the rescued sea turtle with a permanent home. In April 2003, animal care team members picked up the sea turtle, at the time known by another name, at O’Hare Airport.
Here at Shedd, the turtle received a comprehensive physical exam that included a CT scan to take a more in-depth look at the cause of her buoyancy problem. At the time, the animal health team speculated that one of her lungs could be punctured and collapsed, which would let air into the rest of the body cavity. This is common in sea turtles that have been hit by boats.
The CT scan showed that the turtle’s lungs were fine, but it 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, the veterinary team 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 determined to be a permanent neurological injury right next to her spinal cord. While Nickel still deals with buoyancy challenges today, she is otherwise a healthy turtle that can maneuver her habitat perfectly.
Over 20 years, millions of guests from around the world have come face-to-face with Nickel. She has easily become one of the most iconic and well-known animals at Shedd, all while being an ambassador for 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 Aquarist Brendan Gilloffo, lead caretaker for Nickel and one of seven staff on her care team.
He described Nickel as the “queen of the castle.” She is very food motivated and will breeze past the sharks, rays and fishes in her habitat to get to her meals as quickly as possible. She eats five heads of greens each day and prefers romaine and escarole lettuce.
Though her diet is filled with leafy greens, it’s important for Nickel to exercise. To indicate it’s time for her daily training sessions, she identifies and swims to her target — a yellow circle with black stripes — that she can differentiate from other shapes and colors. Gilloffo said they encourage her to swim throughout the habitat and work her muscles in a variety of ways.
The team will sink a head of lettuce to the bottom to imitate feeding from seagrass on the ocean floor like her wild sea turtle counterparts. They will also stuff lettuce in pieces of fire hose or other creative feeders at different depths in the habitat to keep Nickel moving.
Nickel has also learned how to participate in her own health care. She can present her tail for blood draws, lift her flippers and chest out of the water for routine physicals, open her mouth for an exam, raise her head for eye drops or swim into a basket that is raised out of the water to weigh her monthly.
She accepts touch on her flippers, head, chest and shell, and especially prefers it when her care team brushes her shell.
“She has a sweet spot near her armpit that when we brush or scratch it just right, she’ll fall asleep,” Gilloffo said.
Aquarist Brendan Gilloffo interacts with Nickel.
Nickel touches her target during a training session.
Nickel gets her shell brushed as part of enrichment.
Green sea turtles are one of the longest-lived sea turtle species with a life expectancy of 70 to 80 years. Nickel, who is estimated to be in her late 20s, should continue to delight and educate guests for many decades to come.
To honor and celebrate Nickel’s 20-year anniversary at Shedd, here are three actions you can take immediately to protect threatened sea turtles in the wild:
- Opt for reusables – Reusable materials like metal or glass bottles or canvas bags can be fantastic alternatives for plastic and will reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean that sea turtles could mistake for tasty treats.
- Raise your voice with Surge – Through email alerts, dive into tangible and timely ways to advocate for sea turtles and other wildlife.
- Restore local habitats – Join a Shedd Aquarium Action Days beach cleanup to pick up litter or remove invasive plants that pose another threat to sea turtles far and local wildlife near.
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