NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A young endangered sea turtle found with severe head injuries is swimming free in the Gulf of Mexico after 13 ½ months of rehabilitation.
When it was rescued, the right side of the Kemp's ridley sea turtle's head was cracked from top to bottom just behind the eye, and that side of its lower jaw was barely attached, said Suzanne Smith, stranding and rescue coordinator for the Audubon Nature Institute. The turtle was barely moving.
There's no way to be sure, but the turtle — too young to identify as male or female without a DNA test — probably was hit by a boat propeller, Smith said.
A boater called the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries on July 2, 2012, to report the injured turtle, and biologist Paul Cook rescued it the same day from the Delcambre Canal at Vermilion Bay, biologist Mandy Tumlin said Thursday.
All six species of sea turtles found in U.S. waters are threatened or endangered. Kemp's ridleys, the smallest at up to 100 pounds, are also considered the most endangered.
This one, nicknamed "Jaws," became the first turtle patient ever for veterinary surgeon David Kergosien at Medvet Medical and Cancer Center in Mandeville.
"I felt like bone is, hopefully, bone across species," he said.
Because the turtle wouldn't be able to move its mouth, Kergosien put in a feeding tube extending several inches out the left side of its neck.
He scraped dead bone from the cheek, then created a brace to keep the cracked area in place while it healed. Surgical pins set into the skull held one plastic tube in a curve around the upper jaw and another around the lower jaw. The tubes were filled with silicone that hardened in place.
Smith said Jaws was "drydocked" for the first two weeks after surgery, resting on thick foam and wet towels and covered by a light wet towel over its back, with ointment to keep its head moist.
"Then we gave her a water test," she said.
All of the turtle's records are gender-neutral, Smith said, but informally, "we just adopted her as a 'she' instead of calling her 'it.'"
It took a few days for Jaws to figure out how to avoid bumping the brace into the sides of the 3-foot-wide round tub.
The end of the feeding tube screwed shut, and the tube itself could be attached to the turtle's shell, facing backward so it didn't impede swimming. A "gruel" of blended fish, shrimp, sea-turtle vitamins and vitamin E was poured into the tube, about 1.2 ounces per feeding.
Once the brace was off, Jaws got soft food: peeled shrimp or soft, small fish. As X-rays indicated further healing, she got larger fish and unpeeled shrimp. "When we felt her jaw was getting really sturdy we gave her crab claws," Smith said.
In January, Jaws went on display in a solo tank at the Audubon Aquarium. Reptiles heal slowly, so periodic X-rays monitored progress.
In a photograph taken as Jaws was being removed from a travel crate to be put back into the Gulf, the only sign of the injury is a right-angled notch in the upper jaw, where a chunk is missing.
She grew from about 5 pounds at rescue to 11.9 pounds at release near a petroleum production platform near Marsh Island, about 5 miles south of the mainland. The site was chosen because the barnacles and other marine life that grow on offshore structures create artificial reefs around which fish and other creatures gather.
"It was really nice to see her go back to where she belongs," Smith said.
Kemp's ridley sea turtles: http://www.fws.gov/northflorida/seaturtles/turtle%20factsheets/kemps-ridley-sea-turtle.htm