A trip through turtle rehab

Flipping and flopping fit right in recently for a few reptiles that usually spend their lives at sea.

The record number of 19 turtle residents at South Carolina's only hospital for their kind often bear names of where they each were rescued. Little Debbie, a rare Kemp's ridley found stranded with pneumonia in May 2009 on the beach at DeBordieu Colony, north of Georgetown, remains the longest-tenured tenant with the S.C. Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program in Charleston.

Pirate, a loggerhead, was rescued in Myrtle Beach in June 2009 with lockjaw. However, he ate his first live blue crab at the hospital last April and remains on pace for eventual release into the Atlantic Ocean.

Kelly Thorvalson, the rescue program's manager, who grew up in Georgetown, said the aquarium has returned 54 turtles to the wild since opening in 2000. In tandem with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the first responders to handle washed-up turtles, the program lets each turtle rehabilitate, usually in its own tank.

Leading a public tour given twice daily, five days a week in the basement of the aquarium, Thorvalson said Little Debbie and Pirate represent two of the four species that swim off the Carolina coast. The other two species are leatherbacks and green sea turtles.

"This is a rare opportunity to come face to face with sea turtles," Thorvalson told the crowd.

She reminded everyone to keep their hands at their sides when peering into each pool. Sometimes the turtles will surface at the edge to catch a breath and will stare right at onlookers.

Walking through the hospital, especially on a chilly winter day, feels warm and humid. For these cold-blooded animals, which migrate toward Florida in October to avoid the cold, the thermostat stays from 74 to 78 degrees inside, Thorvalson said.

Each tank has a sign stating its turtle's name, species, arrival date and reason, and treatment. A month ago, one pool contained about 38 little special guests, all hatchlings from Garden City Beach.

"They look like little wind-up toys," said Beverly Ballow, one of 16 volunteers at the hospital.

Thorvalson said the DNR brought this, the second of two green-sea turtle nests, from Garden City Beach. Both were laid late in the summer, and the youngsters would have perished if they had not been incubated, then brought to the hospital after hatching. The first clutch of 58 babies was shuttled Dec. 21 into the sargassum and warmth of the Gulf Stream, and the other brood's boat ride out took place this week.

Visitors can walk beside every tank. Some turtles swim laps in their pool, such as four young green sea turtles transferred from North Carolina after they were stranded in an early December freeze. Other residents, such as loggerheads Pirate and Dawsey, from Caper's Inlet near Charleston, rested on the bottom of their tanks, looking out the windows, content to daydream.

Asked about the turtles' personalities, Thorvalson said they differ, and that some even get "picky with food."

Thorvalson said she can remember the names and traits of just about every turtle rehabilitated at the hospital, and of ones that didn't survive. She loves helping turn the tide to give turtles a second chance, especially because 90 percent of those that wash ashore are dead.

"These animals are truly amazing and leave a lasting impression on anyone who comes into contact with them," she said.

Having left Georgetown to earn her marine biology degree at the College of Charleston, Thorvalson began her career at the new aquarium, where she had her first interaction with sea turtles.

She'll never forget one patient, Stinky, whom she met before the hospital had a naming system. Released in January 2001, Stinky was found years later in an annual DNR trawl survey, in which the animals are checked for health and other data and then released.

"It's pretty amazing to see how much an animal has grown and done well," Thorvalson said.

A mother of a 13-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl, Thorvalson stays out of the water with the family pets: a dog, rabbit and five egg-laying hens.

She said she's inspired by children who visit the hospital, some of whom do grass-roots projects to help the hospital with its endless supply needs.

She also loves educating everybody about her favorite three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle, "to get away from this disposable society that we've built." For example, she urged the public to keep plastic grocery bags from becoming litter, because in the turbulent ocean, hungry turtles mistake them for jellyfish.

Thorvalson joked that some people call her "the turtle lady."

"There's a lot of turtle ladies out there," Thorvalson said.

Ballow said she fell in love with sea turtles in 1980 in her native Florida. She had encountered some dead hatchlings on the beach, so she called authorities to help ensure the rest of the babies sprouting up from their nest - usually a transition by moonlight - would not bake in the sun.

Like the full-time veterinarian at the hospital and her colleagues, Ballow said she enjoys being in a club "crazy about turtles."

Thorvalson said she remains in awe of all sea turtles.

"They're so ancient," she said, "and their lineage goes back hundreds of millions of years. They are survivors."