Behind the Scenes at Sea Turtle Hospital

By:Kerry Egan


sea turtle swimming in a rehabilitation tank
The South Carolina Aquarium offers behind-the-scenes tours of their Sea Turtle Hospital everyday.

A massive loggerhead sea turtle swam up to the edge of his hospital pool, popped his head up and splashed us with his flipper. Water sloshed over the edge and onto our feet. A yellow sign urging "Caution! Wet Floor" was already there next to his tank. Apparently, this turtle had been splashing all day long.

"Watch your hands," Whitney Daniel, the South Carolina Aqua​rium's Sea Turtle Biologist warned the children gathered around the big blue plastic tub.

"Could he bite off my pinkie?" one little boy asked.

"Well, he could," she answered. "Their jaws are strong enough to crunch through clam and conch shells."

"What about my hand?" another child asked as he held up his arm against the window that allowed us to see right the turtle's watery hospital bed. "Or my leg?"

"Or my head?" Giggles abounded.

While the children were impressed by the turtle's chomping ability, I was impressed at how close we were to these amazing creatures.

The South Carolina Aquarium offers Behind-the-Scenes Tours of their Sea Turtle Hosp​ital everyday. It's a tour you don't want to miss.

A group of about 20 people, ranging in age from toddlers to senior citizens, had met Daniel in the lobby. As we walked down a back stairway and outside to the non-public side of the building, with a view of loading docks and heavy equipment, she explained that when the aquarium was designed and built, they had not planned on having a sea turtle hospital open to public tours. The need for the hospital became clear only as other aquariums called to ask for help for injured turtles.

Before we entered, Daniel gave us some background information on the four types of sea turtles found off the coast of South Carolina, and told us a little bit about the turtles who were patients that day.

And then we went into the aquarium's basement. The tour was so awesome because you can tell the hospital wasn't set up to be a tourist attraction in any way. It's the real thing. You walk right into the hospital's working environment, with exposed concrete walls, crates of supplies, computers, and PVC piping everywhere. Photographs of the hospital's successfully rehabilitated and released patients decorate the walls.

The hospital's turtle patients live in big plastic pools. You can walk right up to them and peer over to see the turtles resting, or, in the case of turtles who are already feeling better, swimming around. There are also big clear windows on the sides of the tanks, allowing smaller visitors (and those who don't mind squatting) to see right into the tubs.

While we were there, several of the loggerheads swam over to where we were standing at the side of their pool. They lifted massive heads up to look at us and seemed to wave with their big flippers. According to Daniel, some patients are quite social and like to interact with visitors. Others just stayed quiet at the back of their tanks, either uninterested or maybe to weak to see who was visiting them.

The day we went, there were several big loggerheads and some smaller, juvenile green and Kemp's Ridley turtles. The number and types of turtles you'll see on the tour depends on who happens to be in the hospital at that time.

The tour allows you to wander among the big blue pools and spend as much or as little time as you'd like with each turtle. Both Daniel and staff working in the hospital were happy to answer any questions. Daniel explained what brought each sea turtle into the hospital, and she outlined the interventions the hospital's veterinarian and biologists do to help the turtles heal. Because sea turtles are so endangered, she explained, it's important to give each injured or sick turtle a fighting chance to make it back into the wild.

And when a turtle is ready to go home to the ocean, the staff brings him or her down to the beach and sends the tu​rtle off.

The South Carolina Aquarium in Charlesto​n offers Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Sea Turtle Hospital everyday at noon and 2 p.m. Tours are $10 for adults and $5 for children. Reservations are suggested

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