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Ailing sea turtle provides a hands-on lesson in caring

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

When Wilson Grayson, 9, spotted something dark bobbing in the surf while playing on the beach with his friends one day last month, he had no idea it was an endangered sea turtle.

“I thought it was a rock or something, because there was so much algae on it, and then we went over and saw the legs,” he said. “I just started smiling.”

Other than hatchlings at nest inventories, it was the first time he’d seen a sea turtle outside an aquarium.

He’s glad he and his friends, Carter and Michael Dear, decided to investigate, he said. Because they did, the juvenile green sea turtle that has since been named “Little Pawley,” was saved.

Wilson’s mom, Susan, contacted S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts after the boys made their discovery and Jeff McClary, the group’s founder, arrived to retrieve the turtle and rush it to the sea turtle hospital at the S.C. Aquarium in Charleston, where it is undergoing treatment.

At last report, Little Pawley was doing well.

According to McClary, the turtle had been spotted and reported on the beach near the Sea View Inn hours before Wilson, Carter and Michael encountered it Sept. 20. The person who found it put it back into the water.

“Knowing that nesting season is over, whenever you see a turtle on the beach, it’s sick,” McClary said.

So he had SCUTE volunteers on the lookout for most of the day, figuring the turtle would wash ashore again and hoping it could be found and taken to the sea turtle hospital before it was too late.

When the call came in from the Graysons, McClary didn’t waste any time.

“I jumped in my truck and drove over there. The boys had it on an inflatable raft and were keeping it wet.”

That, he said, was just the right thing for them to have done.

As usual when sick turtles are transported to the hospital, McClary arranged to meet hospital staff in McClellanville and let them take the turtle the rest of the way.

The odds of survival for stranded turtles have gone up significantly in the years since the hospital opened.

“It’s just amazing we’ve got this facility down there, and we’re able to save some of them now,” he said.

Before the aquarium started its sea turtle hospital, there was no facility in the state that could take stranded sea turtles, and by the time they could be transported to a facility in another state, it was too late.

The aquarium offers tours of the turtle hospital, and Wilson said he would like to visit Little Pawley. He’s been checking the hospital’s Web site regularly to stay apprised of the turtle’s condition, and sharing that information with curious classmates at Waccamaw Intermediate School.

“I hope it lives safely and goes back to the ocean,” Wilson said.

He was told the turtle will likely become a resident of the aquarium, but he’d rather it be released. He believes, however, that Little Pawley would be safer in the aquarium, free from the danger of being eaten by a predator, such as a shark.

Although Wilson has seen palm-size hatchlings just out of the nest, he said he was still surprised by how small Little Pawley was. Adult green sea turtles often reach 5 feet in length and weigh several hundred pounds. Little Pawley is only about a foot in length and light enough for Wilson to lift.

Wilson said he’s learned a lot about sea turtles since he found Little Pawley. And the experience is something he said he’ll never forget.

“It was really amazing when I saw it, and it really changed my life and the way I think about sea turtles,” he said.

From now on, Wilson said he’ll keep an eye out for sea turtles on the beach, and hopefully be able to help any future stranded turtles.

McClary said he’s not sure how many sea turtles have been found stranded on Georgetown County beaches this year, but he’s personally dealt with 13. Unfortunately, most were found dead. Others died en route to the hospital.

The hospital has a full house right now and about 80 percent of those turtles were found in Georgetown and Horry counties, he said.

When Little Pawley was admitted, it was unable to fully submerge and find food. It was also anemic, hypoglycemic, and had a very low heart rate.

Treatment has so far been very effective.

A video of Little Pawley feeding is posted online at scaquarium.org. The hospital also has him listed as Pawley.

Though sea turtle nesting season is over, there are a few late nests on area beaches that haven’t hatched.

SCUTE volunteers inventory nests shortly after they hatch to gather data for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. The public is welcome to attend and get a look at the eggs, and perhaps a hatchling or two.

There were 69 area nests this year, down from 138 in 2008. There is one nest on Pawleys Island and two at DeBordieu beach that have yet to hatch.

Check out SCUTE’s page at Facebook.com to find out when inventories are scheduled.

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