When Brian Reece spotted something large and brown in the surf at South Island – known as the Yawkey-South Island Reserve – on Saturday, he figured it was a log washing up on the isolated beach south of Georgetown.
Reece, a Wildlife Technician and one of a few South Carolina Department of Natural Resources employees that live on the island, was on a weekend excursion to the beach with friends and family.
Soon, Reece realized it wasn't a log in the surf, but a rare leatherback turtle.
“A lot of stuff washes up out there, but as soon as I saw what it was, I figured something would have to be done about it,” said Reece. “I figured there was something wrong with it.”
Reece has worked at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center on the island for 10 years, and he has seen plenty of loggerhead turtles.
This was the first leatherback he has seen over the years, and when he realized the massive turtle was alive, he quickly began a rescue mission.
The turtle, a juvenile estimated to weigh 500 pounds, was taken to the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Hospital in Charleston for rehabilitation.
Since leatherbacks are such a rarity along the South Carolina coast, the story took off, making national and even international news.
The turtle, named Yawkey by its rescuers, was lethargic when it arrived at the aquarium, but its condition has since improved.
Over the last five days, the turtle has received fluids and antibiotics after arriving with low blood sugar.
“She's doing a lot better,” said Jenna Cormany, a wildlife biologist and sea turtle specialist with the S.C. DNR. “When she was brought in, she wasn't moving around much and was really lethargic. She's been swimming around and she'll pop up her head, looking around, checking things out. She's shown great improvement.”
Since the diet of leatherbacks consists mainly of jellyfish, Cormany surmised the turtle mistakenly ingested plastic bags that made their way into the ocean. Equipment to x-ray the turtle was not available, meaning the cause of the turtle's health issues may never be confirmed.
But Cormany took the opportunity to stress the public can help prevent such situations by properly disposing of plastic bags.
Yawkey was released Thursday afternoon.
“They don't do well in tanks,” Cormany said. “If we wait there's more of a chance she will injure herself..”
Cormany provided numbers that confirmed just how rare the occurrence of leatherbacks is along the Palmetto State's coast.
“Generally, as far as nests, we get about five leatherback nests a year and some years we don't have any,” said Cormany. “Sometimes we have dead ones wash up but this is first live one we've taken to rehab.”