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California Wildlife Center receives unexpected guests

Aquarium of the Pacific employees Stephanie Herdt (left), veterinary technician, and Joanna Choi release a green sea turtle that was rescued in Malibu after being caught by a fisherman. Photos Submitted
Mike Remski, Marine Mammal Rehabilitation Manager at California Wildlife Center, rescues an injured sea turtle on Sept. 1 in Malibu.
An X-ray taken at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach shows a deeply lodged fishing hook which required surgery for removal. The turtle is still recovering at the aquarium.
Lauren Finkler, Editor
12:07 am PDT September 21, 2016

Sharks, seals and sea lions are common patients at the California Wildlife Center, but something peculiar happened on Aug. 9.

The California Wildlife Center rescued the first green sea turtle its staff has ever seen. The turtle was caught by a fisherman’s line at Malibu’s Topanga Beach, reeled in, and became stuck in tidepool rocks. 

Jeff Hall, Marine Program Manager, led the rescue effort, which ended with the 28-pound turtle being transported to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach for surgery to remove the hook that was stuck in its esophageal tissue.

An even more unusual thing occurred around 2 p.m. on Sept. 1, when it happened all over again.

Again, a fisherman hooked a green sea turtle, this time at Malibu Pier. Mike Remski, Marine Mammal Rehabilitation Manager at California Wildlife Center, came to the rescue, and that turtle, too, was sent to the Aquarium of the Pacific, which happened to release the previous turtle that very day. 

“We’re not set up here at the California Wildlife Center to care for sea turtles,” Remski explained. “That’s a really specialized thing. The tanks, the water systems that they need are very specific. 

“I don’t know exactly what their needs are since I don’t deal with them, but their needs are a lot more stringent than a seal or sea lion.”

Dr. Lance Adams, a veterinarian at Aquarium of the Pacific, performed surgery on each of the sea turtles that hailed from Malibu. 

The second turtle’s surgery took roughly an hour-and-a-half, Adams said, with the hook in its throat lodged deep down, calling for an incision on the side of the turtle’s neck. Adams said the turtle recovered “very well” from the surgery, with a little help from antibiotics.

Adams said the aquarium typically waits two to three weeks after the surgery to do a follow-up exam and remove the stitches. While the time it takes a sea turtle to heal can vary, Adams added that sea turtles are “very tough, so they almost always heal.”

Adams anticipated potentially being able to release the turtle to the wild within two to four weeks, depending on a number of conditions. 

Adams is also currently caring for a third sea turtle that was hooked and captured at Ballona Creek in Los Angeles this July.

While the Aquarium of the Pacific has seen a few rescued sea turtles prior to this summer’s trio, Adams did say it was a shift in behavior for the turtles to be up so close to the coast in the area.

“I’ve been at the aquarium 15 years and in that time period I think we’ve maybe seen eight green sea turtles that have come in stranded and several other species, too,” Adams said, adding that he’s also cared for loggerheads and an olive ridley sea turtle.

Loggerheads are even more rare, the veterinarian explained, noting that both turtle’s pattern shifts can likely be attributed to warmer water temperatures and migratory changes.

Still, he said, it’s not unheard of for sea turtles to be found in Southern California.

“They’ve been here, it’s just probably seasonally and not in high numbers,” Adams said. “It’s not warm enough for them to nest here, so people don’t see them because they don’t come up on the beaches, but they probably do forage off of our coastline.”

The Aquarium of the Pacific is also studying a population of green sea turtles in the San Gabriel River, where the sea turtles flock due to warmer water caused by electrical power plants lining the river.

Green sea turtles in the Eastern Pacific population are considered threatened, and the species is protected under the Endangered Species Act. In other areas such as Florida and on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, breeding colony populations of green sea turtles are endangered due to egg poaching, beach damage and more, Adams explained.