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Michelle Sattler and Sea Turtle Nickel

When animal collections manager Michelle Sattler mentions that she works at Shedd, the first response is, “Oh, where Nickel is.”

“She’s quite famous,” Michelle says of the rehabilitated green sea turtle, star of the Caribbean Reefhabitat and one of the animals she happens to care for.

Shedd collections manager Michelle Sattler works with rescued green sea turtle Nickel in the Caribbean Reef exhibit.
Nickel the green sea turtle, her long front fins swept wide, swims in Caribbean Reef at Shedd Aquarium.

Michelle’s relationship with Nickel goes back even before the turtle arrived at Shedd in April 2003. “A turtle at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, in Florida, needed a home,” Michelle explains. “We agreed that she’d be a good animal with a good story—and the first rescued and rehabilitated animal in the Caribbean Reef. I did the acquisition and even picked her up at the airport.”

When aquarists opened the transport box at Shedd, the first things Michelle noticed were that the turtle, named Pete, was big—more than 120 pounds—and not a Pete. “And I thought, okay, we’ve got to rename her.”

Nickel interacts with a number of aquarists and volunteer divers, but Michelle oversees her training team, works one-on-one with the turtle one day a week and checks in with her the other four. “The animal benefits from having one central person who knows her behaviors and preferences. It becomes second nature, and I can innately see when something is amiss or when she likes something.”

While Michelle doubts that Nickel would pick her out among a group of divers, she does think the turtle recognizes her by touch. “I think she can pick up on the rhythm of the way I handle her,” whether it’s a scrub with a brush on her shell, a firm smack on the back (“that’s kind of like scratching an itch”), or the “Nickel tickle.”

““I noticed that when I massaged, or tickled, her back feet, she clamped them around my hand. That told me she liked it, so I just kept doing it. When I show other people how to do it, though, nobody else can do it right as far as Nickel is concerned!””

Michelle Sattler, Senior Aquarist
A Shedd staff member steadies the large plastic platform that is used to lift Nickel the green sea turtle out of the Caribbean Reef habitat to be weighed.
Green sea turtle Nickel has powerful front flippers that she uses to travel quickly around her Caribbean Reef habitat.

“I’m always trying to explore different places to scratch her or rub her to see how she reacts,” Michelle says. “I noticed that when I massaged, or tickled, her back feet, she clamped them around my hand. That told me she liked it, so I just kept doing it. When I show other people how to do it, though, nobody else can do it right as far as Nickel is concerned!”

For Michelle the most rewarding part of caring for Nickel is just that: providing her with a healthy, safe, stimulating life. And while the travails of the turtle’s life—a near-fatal strike by a boat propeller and long recuperation—are far in the past, Michelle says her most moving experience with Nickel involved a recent visit from Matt Finn, the man who rescued Nickel along Florida’s coast in 1998.

“When I brought Matt up to the Caribbean Reef to have an encounter with Nickel, he was moved to tears. He felt good that his one action gave her a second chance at life—and quite a good life, as the famous sea turtle at Shedd Aquarium.”

Karen Furnweger, web editor