GHS graduate unveils plans for expanded Sea Turtle Hospital at S.C. Aquarium

  • Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lloyd Mackall/For the Times Goffinet McLaren, left, South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts coordinator at Litchfield by the Sea, chats with Sea Turtle Rescue program manager Kelly Thorvalson at the S.C. Aquarium. Thorvalson talked to a group from the Waccamaw Neck about plans to expand the aquarium’s sea turtle hospital.

Volunteers from the South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (SCUTE) traveled to Charleston recently to learn about a proposed expansion of the South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital.

Sea Turtle Rescue Program manager Kelly Thorvalson, a Georgetown High School graduate, said the turtle rehabilitation expansion will be built on the first-floor of the aquarium where Madagascar Island Journey resides. The Madagascar exhibit will be removed in the fall of 2015.

“The new hospital will not only increase the aquarium’s capacity to treat sick and injured sea turtles but the surrounding exhibitry will provide an emotional connection and story line about the animals and their caregivers,” Thorvalson said. “A one-way glass wall will allow visitors to see the inner workings of the hospital without disturbing the turtle recovery.”

Thorvalson earned a bachelor of science degree in marine biology at the College of Charleston and started volunteering at the aquarium in 1997. She was hired as an aquarist in 1999, before the Sea Turtle Hospital opened in 2000.

“The Sea Turtle Hospital has been over capacity for the last few years, sometimes housing more than 20 turtles,” Thorvalson said. “Injured sea turtles are currently housed in a 2,000-square-foot hospital before they are released back into the wild. The proposed 4,000-square-foot addition will enable the staff to care for more turtles, as well as educate visitors about sea turtle conservation.”

Thorvalson said the project is in the development phase, with construction scheduled to be completed in 2016. “Specific designs are being finalized,” she said. “Capital costs are projected to be $5 million and an additional $2 million raised for operations.”

Thorvalson didn’t join the aquarium to work with turtles. She already had her dream job, working with fish.

“Then we brought in this injured sea turtle — the very first one — and I was amazed at how sick this animal was. I was happy to be just a small part of that healing.”

And then in 2002, Edisto Mama arrived.

“She was gigantic,” Thorvalson said. “I’ve treated much larger turtles since her, but she was really a turning point in my career. She was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen and helped. I knew I would be working with sea turtles in the long-haul.”

She recalls the hospital’s humble beginning.

“It wasn’t until after the aquarium was opened that we learned there was a need for turtle rehabilitation in South Carolina,” Thorvalson said. “We didn’t have a designated area in which to perform these rescues. We were spread out all over the building. Five years after the first turtle was admitted, we found a grant to build the present hospital.”

The staff’s goal is to get the turtles back into the wild.

“We want nothing more than to get them back out to the ocean,” Thorvalson said. “What makes the program work is the fact that these turtles don’t want to form connections with us. They don’t become imprinted or conditioned on our caring for them and feeding them. They can stay nine months under our care — the average length of stay here — and then be released back into the ocean and still do just fine. Turtles aren’t very social creatures, but they do have personalities.”

Thorvalson said the hospital is a one-of-a-kind operation in South Carolina.

“The staff often works nights, weekends, holidays, and they are on-call in case of a turtle stranding.”

Three sea turtles from Georgetown and Horry counties are currently receiving treatment at the hospital:

• Huntington is a 145-pound juvenile loggerhead stranded near Huntington Beach State Park in June. Floating and unable to dive, he was rescued after being seen by a family who were boating in the area,

• Nud is a 71-pound juvenile loggerhead who was also rescued in June on DeBordieu Beach. Nud was anemic, heavily encrusted and critically ill, suffering from a severe skin disease.

• Briar is a 125-pound loggerhead found stranded at North Myrtle Beach in May. Briar was severely debilitated and covered with epibionts like barnacles, indicating they have been lethargic and sick for a while.

Sea turtle hospital tours are offered daily at noon and 2 p.m. Tours are not included in the regular aquarium admission price. Advance tickets are $10 for adults and teens 13 or older; and $5 for kids ages 4 to 12. Toddlers are admitted free.

For more information go to www.scaquarium.org.

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