A rare leatherback sea turtle, nicknamed Yawkey and weighing an estimated 500 pounds, was being treated at the South Carolina Aquarium on Monday after being rescued on a remote coastal beach – the first leatherback known to have been stranded alive in South Carolina.
The turtle was spotted Saturday on a beach on the Yawkey-South Island Reserve in Georgetown County and brought to the aquarium.
Leatherbacks, an endangered species, are the largest sea turtles and one of the world’s largest reptiles. Adults generally can weigh 800 to 1,000 pounds although some have been reported as large as 2,000 pounds.
They get their name because, instead of a shell, their backs are covered with leathery, oily tissue.
It’s the first leatherback to be treated at the aquarium, said Kelly Thorvalson, program manager for the aquarium sea turtle rescue program. During the past 15 years the aquarium has treated and released more than 150 sea turtles.
Thorvalson said Yawkey’s weight is just an estimate because the aquarium scale was not large enough to weigh it.
The turtle has low blood sugar and is being treated with fluids and antibiotics.
Thorvalson said it’s possible Yawkey may have eaten marine debris such as plastic which can appear to a turtle to be jellyfish, their favorite food. Eating plastic could cause a buildup of gas in the digestive tract, making the turtle buoyant and washing it to shore.
The aquarium hopes to release the turtle as soon as possible because leatherbacks don’t do well in captivity. Since they live in the deep ocean they don’t sense boundaries so they tend to swim into the sides of tanks and bruise.
Jenna Cormany, a wildlife biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said that the leatherbacks migrate along the Gulf Stream, which is about 60 miles offshore of South Carolina.
She said that each year four or five leatherbacks might wash up dead along the South Carolina coast but this is the first time a live leatherback has been found stranded.
Thorvalson expects Yawkey to be able to get back to the ocean quickly.
“Sea turtles are tough. They are really tough animals,” she said. “This turtle is in good enough condition that we can give it a good head start and release it. I do feel good about its prognosis.”