Last week saw an important discovery made in B.C. waters. On Tuesday 22, 2011 an olive ridley sea turtle was found washed up along Wickaninnish Beach in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. This was the first olive ridley sea turtle ever found in British Columbia waters, now bringing the sea turtle species count in B.C. to three. The other two species found in B.C. waters are leatherback sea turtles and green sea turtles.

The olive ridley is a small sea turtle that typically lives in tropical and warm waters. Scientists had been anticipating evidence that the olive ridley sea turtle was found in B.C. waters, since other sightings have been confirmed in Alaska and Washington.

Unfortunately, this particular turtle was found in bad shape on the beach by a park visitor who quickly alerted officials. The responding park staff noticed the olive ridley sea turtle had a broken shell and very few signs of life such as occasional flipper and eye movements. Parks Canada staff removed the turtle from the beach for monitoring and transport but all of the turtle’s signs of life faded. On Wednesday morning, Parks Canada staff met with members of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Marine Mammal Response Network, who picked up the turtle for further examination.

The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre was called upon to provide assistance with identifying and assessing the turtle, stabilizing the animal and recommending treatment. The Aquarium team transported the turtle to the Aquarium’s hospital for further monitoring. Once the animal was admitted to the Aquarium’s hospital, Dr. Haulena and his team provided emergency treatment and assessed the turtle’s injuries. An electrocardiogram and ultrasound were performed to look for a heartbeat. Although faint electrical deflections noted, they were weak and infrequent. The turtle was confirmed dead the next morning.

A necropsy was performed on November 24 and confirmed that the turtle was a sub-adult female that died of blunt force trauma of an unknown source. Two small pieces of hard plastic were found in the turtle’s stomach. Although not the cause of death for this turtle, the finding was an important reminder that marine debris is a significant threat to marine animals—one of the key reasons the Aquarium started the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup 17 years ago. Earlier this fall, the Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre released Flash Gordon, another animal affected by marine debris. Flash is a young adult, male California sea lion that spent time at the Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre recovering from the removal of a foot-long fishing flasher hanging from his left cheek.

Regrettably, this olive ridley sea turtle will not have the same fate as Flash. Further testing will be conducted to confirm its species. It is not yet clear which population the turtle comes from, but the closest olive ridley nesting areas are on Pacific beaches of Mexico and Central America.

Any sightings of live, free swimming sea turtle and cetaceans should be reported to the Vancouver Aquarium’s BC Cetacean Sightings Network at 1-866-ISAWONE. Reports of dead, injured, distressed marine mammals and sea turtles should be reported to the Marine Mammal Response Network hotline 1-800-465-4336.

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