Tilt: Aquarium adds weights to level out swimming of injured turtle

A team at Mystic Aquarium prepares to use epoxy on the shell of Charlotte the turtle. The aquarium attached two pouches to hold weights that should allow the injured turtle to swim more horizontally.
A team at Mystic Aquarium prepares to use epoxy on the shell of Charlotte the turtle. The aquarium attached two pouches to hold weights that should allow the injured turtle to swim more horizontally. Mystic Aquarium photo

Mystic - Since being hit by a boat propeller six years ago, Charlotte the green sea turtle has been forced to adopt a head-down swimming style.

Affectionately named "bubble butt" because she paddled at almost a 90-degree vertical angle in the water with her rear end sticking up, the juvenile Mystic Aquarium turtle became the subject of a children's book that tells her story of compassion, perseverance and overcoming challenges.

But now aquarium veterinarian Dr. Allison Tuttle and her staff have borrowed a noninvasive procedure used by the Georgia Sea Turtle Center to rehabilitate turtles, and now Charlotte is swimming almost horizontally in the water.

The aquarium used sandpaper to roughen a portion of her shell, applied an epoxy and then attached two custom-made neoprene pouches. Different sized weights are placed inside to help Charlotte balance in the water.

Over the next few months, the aquarium will continue to adjust the weights so Charlotte's muscles can get accustomed to swimming more horizontally.

"She was the model patient. She was calm throughout the entire process," Tuttle said Thursday as Charlotte paddled nearby in the Stingray Bay exhibit. "She's tolerated the weight very well and doesn't seem stressed out by them at all."

In 2008, Charlotte was struck by a boat propeller, which caused a spinal injury that partially paralyzed her lower digestive tract and hind flippers. This also caused gas to accumulate in her digestive tract, making her float with her rear end up.

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island discovered her stranded nearby and cared for her before sending her to Mystic Aquarium. Charlotte has since become part of the aquarium's collection because she would not be able to survive in the wild.

While Charlotte now weighs about 77 pounds, the fact that she will grow much larger prompted the aquarium to apply the weighted pouches.

Tuttle explained that in order to swim, Charlotte had been using muscles that were not designed to move the way she was using them. Meanwhile, her primary swimming muscles were getting weaker.

In addition, the aquarium worried that her neck was rubbing on her shell as she tried to lift her head up.

"As she grows, we want to make sure she grows normally and with the appropriate muscular development," she said.

Tuttle said Charlotte is now using the appropriate swimming muscles.

"She's slowly learning that she has to move slightly differently," Tuttle said. "She's getting in shape."

j.wojtas@thyeday.com
Twitter: @joewojtas

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