Aquarist Kaelie Spencer enters Tank No. 20 in the Birch Aquarium’s Hall of Fishes with a juicy hunk of fresh salmon. But the sea turtle isn’t having any.
A crowd of 50 visitors watches the 3 p.m. feeding, which occurs only twice weekly, from the dry side of the glass.
“I couldn’t eat with all this pressure on me either,” one jokes.
“Maybe she likes her salmon smoked,” another adds.
Five years ago, it was difficult to lay eyes on this Loggerhead and joke. Her rear flippers were paralyzed; one was partly missing. And a large chunk was taken out of the right rear of her shell.
The exact cause of her ailments is uncertain. “It was probably a boat strike, although we don’t know,” said Spencer before the feeding on Jan. 6. “But Loggerhead sea turtles build their nests with their hind flippers. Since she’s never going to be able to do that, that’s why she’s here with us.”
The turtle once had a name, Jersey, after where she was found: the cooling canal of a New Jersey nuclear power plant. But that was only while she was being rehabilitated by the South Carolina aquarium that pronounced her un-returnable to the wild. After she was flown to San Diego in 2014, the name was revoked. Birch is a science-based facility, Spencer explained, so none of its animals have names.
“It helps to keep people from giving animals human characteristics,” she explained. “But I always tell people that if they feel really attached, then they can give her a personal name.”
Spencer seems really attached herself. She said her marine-reptile friend is “about as smart as an average dog” and likes to have fun like one, too. She plays hide-and-seek in her tank’s decorative boat, puts on shows for TV crews and gives “a mean side-eye” in the summer, when she’s much hungrier than now and often eats faster than the tongs can be reloaded with delectable seafood.
Getting by with a little help from her friends
As the sea turtle formerly known as Jersey grew from 75 pounds to her healthy current weight of 215, this actually increased the risk posed by her other health problems, which include an abnormally curved spine. To prevent damage to her organs by an inwardly curving shell, Birch teamed up with the Geisel Library Digital Media Lab at UC San Diego to create what is believed to be the first 3D-printed turtle-shell brace in 2017.
“It’s called a scoot,” Spencer said. “In a couple years, that plastic piece is going to pop off and we’ll have to start the process all over again.”
Loggerheads, which are found around the world, reach maturity at 35 years, according to Spencer. Their lifespan tops 50 years and possibly hits 100. This one is about 20 years old, Spencer said, “so she has a long time left to go.”
Unfortunately, life for any given Loggerhead these days — injured or not — might be longer in captivity than in the wild. They’re listed as threatened due to their deaths from fishing nets, boat propellers and loss of habitat, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“She’s a really wonderful ambassador animal for us, because forging a personal connection hopefully lets people forge a larger connection with conservation values,” said Birch Aquarium marketing specialist Caitlin Scully. “People say, ‘Look, I got this really great photo of a sea turtle, I shared it with all my friends, what do you mean they’re threatened?’”
On Jan. 11-12, Birch will throw a “Turtleversary” party to mark the fifth year of its Loggerhead’s arrival. The free festivities will include crafts and other activities for the kiddos, guest scientists and demonstrations of the tools used to train and feed Birch’s star attraction.
— IF YOU GO: “Turtleversary” will take place 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 11-12, 2020 at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla. Regular admission applies: $19.50 for adults; $15 for ages 3 to 17; and free for ages 2 and under. To purchase tickets in advance, visit aquarium.ucsd.edu or call (858) 534-3474.