Birch Aquarium celebrates ‘Turtleversary’ of rescued sea turtle

A rescued loggerhead sea turtle at Birch Aquarium celebrates her fifth anniversary at the site Jan. 11 and 12. The turtle received a 3D printed implant to replace a missing piece at the rear of her shell.
(Deborah Sullivan Brennan)

Reptile received custom-made, 3D-printed implant to fill a crack in her shell


Two years after a ground-breaking veterinary intervention, a rescued loggerhead turtle at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography is celebrating her anniversary with the aquarium.

The turtle made news two years ago when she received a custom-made, 3D printed implant to fill a crack in her shell that was stunting her spine. On Thursday, she glided around her tank, ignoring salmon offered by her keepers, but curiously examining dozens of visitors who gathered to watch her feeding.

This weekend, she’ll get even more attention as the aquarium hosts a “Turtleversary” to mark her 2015 debut.

The female loggerhead sea turtle was found injured and sick in a power plant outflow canal in New Jersey in 2013. Weighing in at just 97 pounds, she was emaciated, lethargic and covered in barnacles that took advantage of her weakened condition, said Jenn Nero Moffatt, senior director of animal care, science and conservation for the aquarium.

Worse, she had a cracked shell that was twisting her spine and her rear legs were paralyzed. She was stabilized at South Carolina Aquarium but her injuries meant she couldn’t be released. Birch Aquarium took her in November 2014, and she went on public exhibit in January 2015.

Aquarists at Birch knew she would need treatment for her damaged shell in order to recover. They weighed the possibilities of surgery, bracing and other interventions, and eventually settled on the least invasive option. It involved creating a 3D printed prosthetic that perfectly fit the gap in her shell.

Birch staff worked with the Digital Media Lab at UC San Deigo, using imaging techniques designed to measure coral reefs, in order to scan the missing piece of shell. Then, they printed a replacement made of hard, lightweight, corrugated plastic, and fine-tuned it until it fit precisely. They attached it with marine epoxy, and it has held firm ever since, defying expectations that they would have to replace it periodically.

“The brace is sitting in there perfectly,” Moffatt said. “We haven’t had to take it off, and it hasn’t popped off.”

The shell brace appears to be correcting the distortion of her spine and shell, which was curving excessively because of the gap.

“The 3D printed prosthetic is preventing the vertebrae from curving anymore,” Moffatt said. “The lump in her shell is flattening out.”

Loggerheads, known by the scientific name Caretta caretta, reach maturity at 35 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Authorities say their life span is over 50 years and possibly up to 100. The turtles are found around the world, and are listed as endangered. They nest on beaches in Japan, but travel around the globe, and a couple of them have taken up residence on the San Diego coast, Moffatt said.

As reptiles, their body temperature depends on the environment, so their activity rises and falls with seasonal cycles. During the winter, the short daylight hours and colder seawater, pumped from the nearby pier, slow the turtle down. She eats less then, even when staff tempt her with her favorite foods, including salmon and clams, said Birch aquarist Amy Hudgins.

The feedings also serve as training and grooming sessions. Staff members scrub her sensitive shell with a scrub brush to keep her clean, and also offer a welcome scratching.

To feed her, they use a target-training technique, holding a stick with a bulb attached to attract her, and then rewarding her with fish offered from a pair of metal tongs. This allows them to coax her onto a metal basket when she needs a weigh-in or checkup, an important method to ensure cooperation from the hefty reptile, Hudgins said.

“She’s 200 pounds, so she’s not going anywhere she doesn’t want to go,” she said.

On Thursday, despite her winter languor, the turtle swam briskly around the tank before an audience of dozens of aquarium visitors. Although an aquarist offered her a thick salmon steak, she seemed more intrigued by the people than the treat, swimming up to the glass to examine the crowd.

“Guests love her, and when they learn about her and all she’s gone through, they appreciate her even more,” Moffatt said. “She’s got a really charismatic face, so when she swims up by the window, and she’s got these big, beautiful eyes and cute little face, children particularly bond with her.”

This weekend the aquarium will highlight that connection with its turtle during its “Turtleversary” event Saturday and Sunday. The Birch “shell-ebration” will take place between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. both days, and is included in the cost of admission. It will include sea turtle-themed activities, crafts, and marine reptile science, allowing guests to learn how the turtle is trained and cared for.