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Decades Later, Scientist Reunites with Sea Turtle He Saved

Before his visit to Shedd Aquarium, marine biologist Matt Finn, Ph.D., hadn’t seen sea turtle Nickel for nearly 20 years. Even then, long ago, their time together had been brief, an afternoon on a boat near Florida’s Buttonwood Bay. That chance encounter had an outsized impact, however. It saved one life and influenced millions of others, letting Shedd guests come face to face with a spectacular sea turtle—and a symbol for animal rescue efforts.

As Finn recalls it, that day in 1998 had been unexceptional. He was doing fisheries research in Florida’s 10,000 Islands region, tagging, photographing and measuring fish species for the National Fisheries Research Council. But then he made a sighting from his boat’s tower. It was something out of place in the mangroves—a sea turtle, he soon realized, but one that wasn’t acting quite right. “It kept trying to dive,” Finn says, “and it kept popping right back up to the surface."

Nickel the green sea turtle, her long front fins swept wide, swims in Caribbean Reef at Shedd Aquarium.
Matt Finn sits crouched on a platform suspended above the water of the Caribbean Reef habitat, grinning and holding a lettuce leaf as Nickel the sea turtle swims up to the platform in interest.

The marine biologist was concerned by what he saw—and conflicted. The sea turtle seemed stressed, but Finn was also technically on a commercial fishing boat, and sea turtles are protected species. But when the turtle attempted another dive and popped up near the boat, he knew he had to act. “I grabbed her and hauled her aboard,” he says.

This wasn’t the first time Finn had encountered a sea turtle in the course of his research. After earning a B.S. at Georgetown University, he’d spent years on a Smithsonian research boat, starting as dive chief. He worked through a variety of roles in six years at sea, traveling all the way from the tip of Maine to the Caribbean before later earning his Ph.D. and settling in south Florida to work with protected species. “I’ve saved a lot of sea turtles, and they’re feisty,” he says. “But this one was calm when I grabbed her.”

“I’ve saved a lot of sea turtles, and they’re feisty. But this one was calm when I grabbed her.”

Matt Finn, Ph.D.

He could see that she was injured. The exhausted sea turtle had a crack in her shell, the likely outcome of a motorboat collision, and her hind flippers weren’t working. Finn used a boat phone to call in the rescue to the authorities. By the time he returned to the dock, conservancy experts were waiting with a kiddie pool, which they used to keep the sea turtle comfortable as they transported her to a rehabilitation center in Clearwater.

From there, Finn and his rescue took different paths. The marine biologist continued to work with protected species in south Florida, keeping sea turtles, owls, ospreys, stony corals, migratory birds and more from the path of planned construction.

The sea turtle received expert care at the rescue center in Clearwater. Her shell recovered, with a few scars, but she never regained her natural buoyancy, making it impossible for her to be released back into the wild. She stayed at Clearwater for five years, at which point a former Shedd Aquarium volunteer suggested she might find the ideal lifetime home in Shedd’s Caribbean Reef.

She came to the aquarium in 2003. In her entrance exam, our experts discovered a coin lodged in her esophagus. It was removed, and the denomination minted the sea turtle’s new name: Nickel.

A CT scan image showing the nickel lodged in green sea turtle nickel's esophagus at the time of her arrival to Shedd. The nickel was removed, but the nickname stuck.
Green sea turtle Nickel searches among the coral in her Caribbean Reef habitat.

Fast forward 13 years. Nickel had thrived amid the rays and fishes of Caribbean Reef, enchanting countless guests with her grace, size and beauty. Finn, for his part, was planning his first trip to Chicago and reached out to Shedd about seeing the sea turtle he saved long ago. And so, the turtle's and the biologist’s paths crossed again with a behind-the-scenes visit to the top of Caribbean Reef.

Accompanied by collections manager Michelle Sattler, Finn approached the edge of the water. A fresh head of lettuce drew Nickel to the surface. Over the gulf of 18 years, Finn saw the sea turtle he hauled from the water. He gently touched her flippers. He rubbed his hands over her shell, healed but still bearing the scars of that long-ago collision. He smiled with Sattler and lingered long at the feeding platform above the exhibit, obviously savoring the connection. “It was exhilarating,” he said later. “The things they’re doing with her, the amount of care they’re giving her, it’s remarkable.”

“The things they’re doing with her, the amount of care they’re giving her, it’s remarkable.”

Matt Finn, Ph.D.

The encounter was an emotional one, and Finn was still touched by it long after Nickel dove back beneath the water. Reflecting on the unlikely chain of events that brought both him and the sea turtle to Chicago, he sees a larger message in the connection they share. “Everyone can make a difference,” Finn says. “All the little things you do can add up to something pretty cool.”

- James Seidler, web team