It’s been almost two months since a green sea turtle washed up on Combers Beach near Tofino, hypothermic and barely responsive.
It was touch and go at first for the tropical creature, who likely followed an unusually warm current, common in El Niño years, northward from its home range in the waters off of Mexico or Hawaii. But thanks to a collaborative rescue effort between Parks Canada officers and the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue team, Comber, as the turtle has come to be called, has made a remarkable recovery and will soon be headed south for release into the wild.
Currently housed in a temporary habitat at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, Comber has been demonstrating a healthy appetite and become increasingly active in the water. Staff are now awaiting permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that will allow him to travel across the border to Sea World San Diego, where Comber will join about 90 other rescued sea turtles who will be released into the wild once ocean temperatures are a little warmer.
In the meantime, Comber has been a source of excitement and curiosity for Aquarium staff and volunteers more accustomed to working with animals commonly found along the West Coast. “He’s kind of the highlight of our day,” says Sion Cahoon, veterinary technologist with the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.
Cahoon has been part of the dedicated team that helped painstakingly raise Comber’s temperature, just a few degrees a day, from a dangerously low 11.2 degrees celsius to a healthy 20 – 25 degrees. In the process they learned as much as they could about Comber, who is thought to be a male, based on the curvature of his shell, the length of tail and the prominence of his front flippers. His predilection for seafood — Comber has been enthusiastically chomping on squid, shrimp, capelin and herring — puts his estimated age at between 12 and 20 years old as juvenile sea turtles are omnivores and grow into herbivores as they age.
Cahoon says having Comber on site has also offered a rare opportunity for Aquarium staff and volunteers who don’t often interact directly with animals to get an up close look at a species listed as endangered worldwide by the World Conservation Union. She’s been enjoying sharing Comber’s recovery story with staff and volunteers who have been able to sign up in groups to participate in feeding Comber, and give him the odd back scratch, while he is in quarantine awaiting travel permits.
For Cahoon, Comber’s good news story really brings home the dedication all our staff and volunteers demonstrate in their commitment to conservation, education and research efforts in support of marine life.
“The best part of this job is watching animals get better and work toward release,” she says.
Sick and injured animals like Comber are cared for by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, presented by Port Metro Vancouver and supported by Teekay Shipping. Rescue Centre staff attend to more than 100 sick, injured and stranded marine animals each year and rehabilitate them for release back into their natural habitat. Donate to the Rescue Centre at www.vanaqua.org/mmr