Caretta is “the queen of the tank,” declares a friendly South Carolina Aquarium volunteer to a group of visitors that’s growing by the minute. They’ve all gathered to see Charleston’s famous Caretta, a fully grown, 35-year-old loggerhead sea turtle. Her home, the Great Ocean Tank, happens to be North America’s deepest saltwater tank. In all her 220-pound glory, Caretta glides gracefully through clear turquoise water, stopping only to nap or to greet the volunteer divers who swim in the tank.
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Caretta may be queen, but she’s not the only resident. Flat-bodied nurse sharks hover on the bottom of the tank while toothy sandbar and blacknose sharks swim in wide arcs around the middle and top of the tank. Regal queen triggerfish and blue angelfish float by the window, and footlong porcupine puffers warn intruders with a prickly surprise. Six-foot long barracudas make shimmering circles in the water, while a solitary chartreuse-green moray eel burrows at the bottom of the tank, only venturing out of hiding to find its food at night.
Visitors to the Aquarium’s Great Ocean Tank experience the dizzying sensation of peering up to see what would ordinarily be far below. This 42-foot-tall feat of engineering contains a whopping 385,000 gallons of water sealed behind an 18-inch-thick acrylic wall. Like almost all of the living exhibits at the South Carolina Aquarium, the Great Ocean Tank is distinctly local, featuring only species that are found in the coastal waters of South Carolina.
From the ocean to the swampy Coastal Plains, from the Sandhills to the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge Mountains, each region of South Carolina is represented.
After your stop at the Great Ocean Tank, admire Liberty, the majestic bald eagle, or watch otters tumble and play in the Mountain Forest. Wander around the Saltmarsh Aviary to watch diminutive diamondback terrapins or marvel at the cotton-candy-pink roseate spoonbills.
At the touch tanks, dangle your fingertips in the water to brush spindly hermit crabs and sea urchins, or feel slick horseshoe crabs and downy-soft cownose rays.
Don’t miss the spectacular panoramic view of Charleston Harbor from the overlook, where dolphins circle distant sailboats and the Ravenel Bridge stretches northward to Mount Pleasant.
You might see seven kinds of sea turtles at the Sea Turtle Care Center. Photography courtesy of SOUTH CAROLINA AQUARIUM
Sea turtle rescue
For “the pride and joy” of the South Carolina Aquarium’s conservation efforts, Advertising and Community Engagement Manager Jessica Whatley directs visitors to Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery, a hospital and exhibit located on the Aquarium’s first floor. Here, in the public wing of the Sea Turtle Care Center, sea turtles are rehabilitated and eventually released into the ocean.
Full-length, one-way glass windows allow guests to observe the sea turtles for the duration of their stay; you might even spot a patient being pulled for an exam or witness a procedure in the surgical suite.
Melissa Ranly, a sea turtle biologist and manager of the Sea Turtle Care Center, receives the animals with a clear goal: “We treat them and get them back out into the wild.”
At the Sea Turtle Care Center, biologists rehabilitate injured sea turtles. Photography courtesy of SOUTH CAROLINA AQUARIUM
All seven species of sea turtles are endangered or threatened, so conservation efforts are critical. Ranly’s role as sea turtle biologist, she muses, is not always glamorous, but it’s always rewarding: “We want to keep these animals on our planet,” she says. “They’ve been around for millions of years, and we know that each one that we can get back out there into the breeding population is crucial to the survival of the whole species.”
Sea turtles arrive with a variety of injuries and illnesses, and they remain as long as it takes to recuperate fully. The Kemp’s ridley, the smallest of the sea turtles at 75 to 100 pounds fully grown, is also the most endangered species and a frequent patient. “It’s good that we see a lot of juveniles,” Ranly says. “We are hopeful that that’s a good sign for the population.”
The Care Center team recently released Gemini, a petite 6.6-pound Kemp’s ridley caught on a hook at Kiawah Island and brought to the Care Center by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) volunteers. Gemini was otherwise healthy upon arrival, and the veterinary team was able to remove two hooks from the turtle’s esophagus without performing surgery. When the team released Gemini back into the big blue, the little Kemp’s cruised right through the ocean waves.
At the Sea Turtle Care Center, children can learn about these special animals and how to help keep them safe in the wild. photograph by Carson Bulwinkle III
Other rescue cases are more severe, particularly those with propellor damage or Debilitated Turtle Syndrome (DTS). These sea turtles are discovered stranded or washed ashore “on death’s door,” Ranly says. Often anemic and covered in barnacles, epibiota, and leeches, they are underweight and so nutritionally deficient that their skin tears easily and their shells are fragile.
Pluto, a 64.3-pound loggerhead, is one such case. Pluto washed up on the beach on Pritchards Island with DTS and predator injuries, including a missing front flipper. After four months of careful treatment that included calcium injections, vitamins, and cold-laser therapy, Pluto has become a Care Center fan favorite. According to Ranly, this kind of regenerative transformation “is what we live for and why we’re here.”
Patients at the Sea Turtle Care Center are eventually released back into the ocean. Photography courtesy of SOUTH CAROLINA AQUARIUM
The goal of the Sea Turtle Care Center is to release healthy sea turtles back into the wild. This means that the sea turtle biologists must limit their interactions only to what is medically necessary for the turtles’ care. “We work really hard when they are here to keep wild animals wild so that when they are released, they don’t go looking for people,” Ranly says. “Because, sadly, that is when they can get into trouble.”
Release for the sea turtles is strategically coordinated with SCDNR, Ranly explains. “Together we discern where to release them based on the time of year, the size class, and where the species forages,” she says.
Sea turtles are released at specific times and places so they can quickly return to their natural rhythms and habitats. “One of those great instinctual things about sea turtles is that they have a wonderful built-in GPS,” Ranly observes. “They know where they want to be, and they will get there quickly.”
Thanks to research collaboration with other institutions, the Sea Turtle Care Center is able to track many of its rehabilitated turtles. This creates a bigger picture of how the animals are thriving once they return to the wild.
Ranly is enthusiastic about their findings. “We know that our patients are out there breeding and laying eggs, and that is success,” she says.
Kids love meeting finned — and scaly — residents of the South Carolina Aquarium. photograph by Nathan Bell
How you can help
Naturalist Baba Dioum’s famous dictum is inscribed on the base of the Great Ocean Tank: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
The South Carolina Aquarium has an ambitious mission to inspire conservation. Theirs is a three-pronged approach: exhibiting and caring for animals, excelling in education and research, and providing an exceptional visitor experience.
This focus on conservation and education is evident in every square foot of the South Carolina Aquarium, an organization that inspires 500,000 visitors each year to become conservationists, protecting our one wild and beautiful world.
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