It started with a kiddie pool and a scrawny 94-pound loggerhead affectionately named Stinky. That makeshift sea turtle hospital, hastily created 17 years ago in the basement of the South Carolina Aquarium, has given rise to a state-of-the-art exhibit, offering visitors an inside look at how these lovable, lumbering reptiles are rescued, rehabilitated and returned to their home.
Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery is an expansion of the Charleston aquarium's sea turtle care center rarely seen by the public. Since the sick and severely dehydrated Stinky was brought to the aquarium in 2000, more than 200 turtles have been treated in the converted basement space now equipped with 13 permanent tanks.
But each year, the number of rescued turtles needing medical care continues to increase, making for crowded conditions. In 2016 alone, 56 of the aquatic reptiles were treated at the hospital.
The May 2017 opening of Sea Turtle Recovery nearly doubled patient capacity and brought operations into public view on the first floor of the aquarium. Both a real-life hospital and an exhibit, Recovery features five galleries that tell the story of how turtles end up in the medical center, are diagnosed and treated and, once well, released on nearby beaches to return to the sea.
One interactive station teaches visitors about local turtle strandings - injured or sick turtles found along the shoreline or floating in area waters. While boat strikes are the leading cause of injury and death on the South Carolina coast, an alarming number of turtles are being admitted to the hospital with plastic trash lodged in their gastrointestinal tract. The impaction creates internal gas buildup, causing the turtles to float.
At another station, you can test your diagnostic skills using touch-screen tablets that allow you to examine a mock loggerhead, green or Kemp's ridley patient following the same process performed by the aquarium's triage team. One cool feature on the interactive display is a CT scan that can be manipulated with your fingers to show every part of the animal's skeleton.
Visitors also can look through a large glass window and watch minor surgeries and procedures being performed in an operating room. Parasites examined under a microscope will be visible on a display monitor.
"They're the craziest looking things you'll ever see," aquarium senior veterinarian Dr. Shane Boylan said. "It's like every alien movie come alive."
But undoubtedly, the most popular part of the exhibit is the rehabilitation gallery. Here, visitors can come face-to-face with turtles as they swim in large tanks equipped with one-way glass. Touch screen tablets serve as hospital charts, providing background and health information on each of the patients. After your visit, you can keep up with the turtles' progress on the aquarium's website.
Visitors also can watch videos and attend educational programs presented daily in the exhibit's 40-seat theater.
One of the most innovative additions to the turtle hospital is an "endless pool" with a continuous current that can be used for therapy and exercise in preparation of a turtle's release. The South Carolina Aquarium is believed to be the first sea turtle rehabilitation facility in the US to be equipped with the groundbreaking technology.
Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery is one of some 60 exhibits in the aquarium, representing the rich biodiversity of South Carolina from the mountains to the sea.