By Sharon Teel-Dive Safety Officer
So, what does a Dive Safety officer have to do with the welfare of a green sea turtle? Well, besides ensuring that the habitat is clean and helping to make sure that water quality is at it’s optimum, of course! As the Dive Safety Officer at Mystic Aquarium, I am always excited to help out with any new projects. Last year I was asked to use my knowledge of SCUBA diving equipment to help a rescued green sea turtle in our care.
Charlotte, now a 15-20 year old green sea turtle, was rescued in Cumberland Island, GA, in January of 2008 by the Georgia Sea Turtle Center after being hit by a boat propeller. The injuries to Charlotte’s shell and hind flippers had healed but had left paralysis of hind flippers.
Since coming to her forever home at Mystic Aquarium, Charlotte has earned quite a loyal following! There is even a book about her in the Aquarium Gift Store entitled “Bubble Butt.” This condition, as referred to as positive buoyancy, causes the turtle to swim in a head down position. In order to compensate for the change in buoyancy and the inability to fully use the back flippers, Charlotte has developed large muscles in the front flippers.
As a result of her injuries and resulting positive buoyancy, steps have been taken throughout the years to find solutions. Many of you have likely seen Charlotte with black weight pouches on her shell. While these visible weight pouches help to normalize her swimming position, they cause challenges for shell health.
The first thing I thought of when asked to help was developing a weight harness for Charlotte. SCUBA divers need different amounts of lead weight to submerge below the surface of the water. The amount of weight needed depends on the type of wetsuit and how positively buoyant that wetsuit makes them. Different people with different body types also can affect how much weight they may need to sink.
In order to keep weight on a diver, they can use a weight belt or a weight harness to hold lead weights in place.
In constructing a weight harness for Charlotte, there are a few important features to consider. The development team, which included our Chief Clinical Veterinarian, Dr. Jen Flower and the animal care professionals responsible for her daily care, wanted to include quick release clips and a very soft set of straps that would not irritate exposed skin.
We also wanted to have weight pouches that would be easy to access so that we could change the amount of weight as needed. It will be hard to guess the amount of weight that will allow Charlotte to be neutrally buoyant. One of our dive volunteers provided us with stainless steel weights that could be used instead of lead. This is a nice substitute because it is clean and will not leach lead into the water system.
Once the harness was developed, there were a couple of sessions scheduled for fitting. The staff veterinarians schedule routine exams to make sure Charlotte is healthy. I was able to check the fit of the harness during two of these sessions and ensure we were able to position the straps and clips so that no abrasions can occur from the harness. The weight pockets also have to be positioned properly for balance.
Soon, we will be scheduling a session for Charlotte to wear the harness while swimming. I will be in the water in full SCUBA equipment to assess how the harness is working. The next step will be to add the appropriate weights and monitor how Charlotte swims. Our goal is to give Charlotte the ability to swim comfortably while neutrally buoyant.
We’ve been working with our videographer in documenting some of this work. We hope to bring you a mini-documentary upon completion of the project. We invite you to stay tuned!!