CHARLESTON - Veterinarian Shane Boylan was rapidly drawing needles to inject nine sick sea turtles that had been rushed to his care Monday when the huge, bleeding bird was brought in with its wings flapping.
"Can everybody ... get back," Boylan urged the staff around him. "I've got a bald eagle I've got to ... " He grabbed a towel and hurried over to the eagle without finishing the thought.
No, the South Carolina Aquarium's sea turtle hospital isn't your usual emergency room. Sometimes, it's more like an inter-species episode of "ER."
It takes the eye a moment to acclimate to the idea that a green sea turtle is up on the surgical table getting rubbed with disinfectant to prep him for a syringe of antibiotics while four sharks circle past the window in the quarantine tank behind him.
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It's almost not a surprise when Dubose Griffin, S.C. Natural Resources Department sea turtle coordinator, lifts the cover off a crate and a brown pelican pops its head out.
"That's kind of a normal day. I'm doing one thing and somebody brings me a bleeding eagle and I've got sick turtles and a shark that's about to crash," Boylan said with a wry smile.
The moment is madcap, but the triage is methodical. The sea turtles were discovered Christmas week along North Carolina beaches toward Cape Hatteras.
They were cold-stunned, essentially shocked by sea temperatures that dropped quicker than the cold-blooded reptiles could react. The consequences aren't too different than hypothermia for humans - the turtles become lethargic, eventually quit moving and die.
"Cold stuns" are a recurring problem for sea turtles when weather changes water temperature too fast for them to move to a warmer pocket. But nine is a lot to handle all at once. The stuns evidently occurred when the recent winter storm swept off the coast. A loggerhead turtle, a Kemp's Ridley and seven green sea turtles had been caught in it.
The turtles are each threatened or endangered species. The sheer number of the turtles overwhelmed limited facilities in North Carolina. But moving them is problematic; the stress could kill the already weakened reptiles.
They can't be re-exposed to the cold and can't get too warm too quickly. The aquarium was the closest destination.
Griffin picked them up Monday morning and hurried them to Charleston in an unheated truck, before temperatures here dropped too far. The aquarium rehabilitates them to return to the wild. Three of the green turtles will be rehabilitated at the aquarium; the other six turtles will be moved today to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island.
The aquarium hospital already has five loggerhead turtles, two Kemp's Ridley turtles and a green turtle. Even three more is past tank capacity at the aquarium, but "there's always kiddie pools," said Kelly Thorvalson, the aquarium's turtle rescue coordinator. "We're committed to doing what we can to take in sea turtles who need help."
Meanwhile, the sharks are in a larger tank also stored in the hospital's tank-friendly confines, being readied for exhibit. Boylan and other staff came across the pelican on their way back from lunch the other day. It wouldn't fly away, so he took a closer look.
The bird, it turned out, had a neck wound and couldn't even swallow a tiny fish. It was too weak to fly. They're feeding it fish bits to restore it's strength enough so they can scope it to find the blockage. The eagle, meanwhile, is a captive who is an aquarium exhibit. It had broken a "blood feather," a newly molting feather that can bleed profusely. Boylan got that staunched and went back to work on the turtles.
The first, sickest green sea turtle - who lay stiff and unmoving when it was brought in - stirred after its injections. It picked up its head and stared up at Boylan, then began to squirm. Placed in a pool, it began to paddle around. The turtle still had a long way to go to get back to the ocean, but it had made its first plunge.
"In a cold-stunned animal, that's what you would hope for," Boylan said. "This little guy perking up in attitude is a very good sign."