(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

In the basement of the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, I watched a diamondback terrapin that had been badly dinged by a car receive cutting- edge laser therapy.

"This is very good for sprains, breaks, bad ankles," said staff veterinarian Shane Boylan as he waved a hand laser over the injured back and neck of the turtle. "Theoretically it increases blood flow and relieves pain, and allows inflammation to decrease faster than it otherwise would."

Here in the state's only sea-turtle hospital, which opened in 2000, Boylan and others were treating 19 animals the day I visited, including loggerheads, Kemp's ridleys and green turtles all threatened or endangered species.

A 99-pound loggerhead had multiple stingray wounds. A green sea turtle had an intestinal impaction. Others suffered from something called "debilitated turtle syndrome." A number of turtles were shipped from New England late last year, having been "cold stunned" trapped in frigid water and too wracked by hypothermia to swim south.

If all goes well, the animals will recover and be released in the wild, like 112 specimens before them.

"There's something about seeing a turtle being returned to the ocean that is emotional," said Kelly Thorvalson, marine biologist and manager of the aquarium's sea-turtle rescue program. "You can't describe it."

Three full-time staff and more than 300 volunteers are saving turtles along the South Carolina coast, with help from fishermen, recreational boaters and anyone else who spots trouble.

"If you can catch a sea turtle in the water, something is wrong with that animal," Thorvalson said.

As if on cue, two volunteers called in a rescue: a small Kemp's ridley on Myrtle Beach had swallowed a fish hook. They were on their way.

"We always beg people, 'Don't cut the line!'" Thorvalson said. She advises instead that would-be rescuers tether the fishing line to something that can't be swallowed, as turtles will do just that until the hook is buried in its gut.

The week before, the staff executed its first esophageal inversion, which involved peeling back the animal's esophagus bit by bit until the hook could be safely removed, obviating the need to cut into flesh.

"It was as clean and as beautiful a surgery as we could do," Thorvalson said.

When the Kemp's ridley arrived, the staff rushed out to meet it, and Thorvalson began examining and measuring the creature. They prepped it for X-rays to see how deep the hook has gone.

While fishermen are responsible for numerous turtle injuries, many participate in the aquarium's sustainable-seafood program, which encourages restaurants and retailers to buy from them if they are conscientious about how and what they catch. This is good for the turtles, according to Thorvalson: "The fishermen that are abiding by the rules are catching fewer sea turtles."

Nevertheless, there are more turtles coming in every year, and the hospital, whose $360,000-a-year budget is funded by donations and a portion of the aquarium gate, has plans to expand. It needs more space and bigger tanks for recovering turtles, which require room to swim as they gain strength before being set free.

There is also a plan to create a recovery area within the aquarium proper, where visitors can see the turtles before they are released. (At the moment the aquarium gives guided tours of the hospital for $10, on top of the general admission.)

Raising public awareness is a key part of protecting the species, Thorvalson said. "We are saving many more turtles through outreach and education than we are with the individual animals we are rehabilitating here." The aquarium is a staple on the grade-school field-trip circuit, and Thorvalson regularly speaks at schools and at conferences on conservation.

"But at the same time, animal care will always come first. That's why we're here. We're passionate about these species."


Help the nonprofit and the turtles by donating at the aquarium website: scaquarium.org/Support/default.html.

bc-turtles (TPN)