Harbor the Turtle

Josie Romasco is working to prove that a “non-releasable” green sea turtle named Harbor can be released. The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium aquarist with a fondness for the aquatic creatures she calls her children, or “crazy little cupcakes,” succeeded in rehabilitating another green sea turtle in 2015.

Harbor, a 7- or 8-year-old green sea turtle, arrived a year ago this month at the zoo, battered and lopsided, afflicted with the condition Bubble Butt Syndrome. The 8.5-pound juvenile had been hit by a boat near the coast of Georgia, partially severing his spine and effectively paralyzing his back flippers. His rear end floats up higher than his front end; for some turtles this condition can be so severe that it prevents them diving below the surface of the water.

Ms. Romasco had hope for this “non-releasable” turtle, though, and through her relationship with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, began arrangements to have Harbor come to Pittsburgh. Ms. Romasco’s experience helped her win needed approval for the match from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“They felt that we were going to be best suited for this animal because of our success with Sunburst. That was such an anomaly: releasing a non-releasable turtle,” Ms. Romasco said. “I thought they were going to laugh me right out of this position. And instead, I think, it’s inspired sort of a movement in the mentality. … We showed that it can be possible.”

While it is still too soon to say that Harbor will join Sunburst back in the ocean, Ms. Romasco and her team are doing all that they can to set him up for success. For the first few months after he arrived, he lived in a small 500-gallon tank in the quarantine room of the aquarium with weight packs regularly attached to the back of his shell to counter the Bubble Butt Syndrome. With no current to fight and a steady stream of veggies skewered on enrichment devices, he was able to continue the wound healing process with no infection, reach a comfortable weight, and strengthen his shell where it had been fractured.

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When x-rays revealed that there were no air pockets under the shell or blockages in his gut causing the flotation, it was good news, but also did not point the aquarists to a permanent solution to his problem. In the fall, Harbor was moved to a larger 7,000-gallon tank in the quarantine room with a strong current. The improvement in fitness and alertness was clear in the way he shot like a torpedo from one end of the oval tank to the other when an aquarist entered the water. Ms. Romasco and the other aquarists are avoiding target training and familiarity between Harbor and humans, unlike the normal routine with non-releasable turtles intended for permanent residency.

“We have a look we give each other, and that’s close enough,” Ms. Romasco said. Despite the distance she keeps between herself and Harbor, she still knows his personality.

“Oh, he’s fun-loving and single,” she said with a laugh. “Ready for a walk on the beach, or, you know, the ocean.”

With the ocean in mind, Ms. Romasco decided to see how Harbor would do without the weight packs on his shell to balance him out in the water. Some turtles facing the same syndrome struggle to dive to the bottom of the tank or get sores on the back of their necks from their unbalanced posture, but Harbor adapted with no complications.

At the beginning of March, Ms. Romasco decided it was time for him to take the next step: Little Ocean. From the back of the building to the front, from empty blue tank to rocky aquarium, from 3 feet deep to 13, it was a big milestone for a little turtle.

Harbor handled it swimmingly. Although his backside is still buoyant, he conquered what Ms. Romasco feared would be his greatest difficulty: diving to the bottom of the tank.

“His little characteristic for life is he will always be butt up,” she said with a smile, watching him swim among darting fish and bright coral in his new home. “I have every confidence in this turtle.”

The PPG Aquarium is one of few non-coastal institutions with both a permit for permanent on-exhibit turtles and short- or long-term rehabilitation, but the facility gets requests to review other sea turtle candidates from either Florida Fish &Wildlife Commission or through their Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator at the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office.

While Ms. Romasco admits she wishes she could take in “everyone’s questionable children all at once” and give them a shot at release, she finds her work incredibly rewarding.

“It makes me feel good that we’re making a difference, one chubby little turtle at a time.”

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