Newport Aquarium foster program gives baby sea turtles a fighting chance

Posted at 10:00 AM, Nov 27, 2016

NEWPORT, Ky. -- The Newport Aquarium family’s newest addition weighs less than a pound, measures about six inches from head to fin and could be vital to the survival of his species.

Frank, a four-month-old loggerhead sea turtle, is in Newport for a year-long “head start," according to biologist Jen Hazeres. Since 2003, she and other aquarium staff have participated in the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources' sea turtle foster program, which places baby sea turtles in accredited aquariums for a year of hand-rearing. 

Each fall, staffers at participating aquariums release a group of healthy year-old sea turtles back into the Atlantic and pick up a new group of hatchlings. The hatchlings Newport receives are not critical cases, according to Hazeres. Baby turtles with severe injuries or poor appetites go to specialized animal hospitals.

Instead, the Newport Aquarium cares for babies that need a boost and a little bit of extra attention.

"The push is always to put them back out in the water if it’s possible," Hazeres said. "The ones we care for were probably at the bottom of the nest; they’re stragglers who struggled to get out from underneath the other eggs. They’re healthy, they’re eating, they’re diving, but they just need a little bit of a head start."

Newport Aquarium biologist Jen Hazeres and volunteers hold Shack, who was fostered at the aquarium until October 2016, on the way out to release him into warm waters on the Atlantic coast. Photo courtesy of the Newport Aquarium

A threatened species like the loggerhead needs all the help it can get.

Although a female loggerhead sea turtle can lay hundreds of eggs each year, only one percent of all hatchlings will reach adulthood. Many become bite-sized meals for natural predators; many others will become entangled in fishing nets, become sick as a result of marine pollution or mistake ocean debris for natural food sources.

The plastic shopping bag, Hazeres said, is a particular danger for a hungry turtle. A jellyfish is a healthy snack for the loggerhead, but plastic, which can look very similar when drifting in the ocean, is deadly. 

"Their odds of surviving are crazy,” Hazeres said. “This is a way to give them a little bit of a break."

Frank’s break means raising him -- Hazeres and her fellow biologists have defaulted to 'him,' since it is nearly impossible to tell a sea turtle’s sex before it reaches maturity -- in an environment free of both natural and manmade dangers while still encouraging him to develop the skills he’ll need to survive in the ocean.

"Obviously, with any animal that’s slated to go back into the wild, you want to make it as hands-off as possible," Hazares said. "The challenge for this is that sea turtles are not the smartest animals."

Cute, yes; intelligent, no. Newport biologists have to strike a careful balance in order to ensure that Frank’s environment is 'baby-proofed' enough that he won’t hurt himself, but enough like his natural habitat that he won’t be overwhelmed or maladapted when he returns to the ocean next October.

Some aquariums, Hazeres said, place their turtles in tanks with no other animals or environmental elements like rocks or plants, but a turtle who grows up in that setting will be hard-pressed to make sense of a real-life marine ecosystem.

So Frank has roommates, although he’s too small to meet them face-to-gills just yet. He spends his days in a laundry basket-sized section of a larger Atlantic tank containing plant and animal species, such as the French angelfish, that he’ll eventually meet in the wild. He eats krill, which Hazeres drops into his tank and encourages him to dive for, and occasionally snacks on a live jellyfish.

At this age, when he’s "all flipper," Frank is still somewhat fragile, but as he grows he’ll become one of the hardiest animals in his tank, Hazeres said. She pointed to one of the aquarium’s adult sea turtles, Denver, who lives in a tank with several sharks, as an example.

"For the most part, none of the sharks in our tank would mess with Denver, but Denver has messed with probably every shark," she said. "He’ll nip at them. You think about the natural curiosity: It’s not a nasty, aggressive or territorial behavior, it’s a 'What is this?' But turtles don’t have hands, so they use their mouths to investigate."

Frank’s journey won’t be over when Hazeres sends him off next October -- loggerheads do not become fully mature until their teenage years -- but he’ll be a yearling instead of a baby, and he won’t be small enough for birds or larger fish to swallow in one bite.

Newport Aquarium biologist Jen Hazares holds Frank, a young loggerhead sea turtle being fostered by the aquarium, up for inspection Oct. 27, 2016. Loggerheads, like all sea turtles, are a threatened species. By raising hatchlings in a safe environment and then releasing them back into the ocean, the Newport Aquarium hopes the population can be preserved. Photo by Sarah Walsh

With the help of the Newport Aquarium and a little luck on his side, he’ll be able to beat the odds and become part of the lucky one percent of sea turtles that survive to reproduce.

If Newport and other participating aquariums are able to continue fostering these hatchlings and introducing them into the wild at a safe age, they could even shift statistics and help the loggerhead escape its threatened status.

"It’s amazing," Hazeres said. “We could really have an adult turtle that we’ve released that will, 20 years from now, be part of sustaining this population."