Kevin Seabrook

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — Last month, the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston announced it successfully raised the $1.6 million needed to continue operating its Sea Turtle Care Center, which is affectionately known as the “Sea Turtle Hospital.”

The rescue and rehabilitation center, dedicated specifically to sea turtles, has treated and released more than 300 injured or stranded turtles since it opened in 2004.

Last September, the aquarium was forced to turn to the public for help to offset financial losses, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which put the funding for the Sea Turtle Care Center in jeopardy. Roughly 80 percent of the aquarium’s annual budget is generated from ticket sales, which were impacted by a months-long closure and limited reopening during the pandemic.

However, it only took about six months for the popular Charleston attraction to raise the money needed to keep the sea turtle hospital open.

As a result, the aquarium will be able to continue its work caring for seven species of turtles, including the loggerhead sea turtle, which has been listed as an endangered species of animal since 1978.

These animals can be found worldwide, including the Atlantic Ocean, making South Carolina a longstanding sea turtle habitat. The loggerhead sea turtle is the official state reptile of South Carolina.

“We are the only sea turtle hospital in the entire state,” said Melissa Ranly, manager of the Sea Turtle Care Center.

Ranly oversees the daily efforts to rehabilitate the sea turtles, once they’re brought in, so they can be returned to the ocean as quickly as possible.

“Everything from preparing the right diet, feeding the right food, the tanks being cleaned and the animals’ medications being given (and) wound care,” said Ranly. “When we start to see that they’re on the mend and ready, we’ll evaluate them for release.”

She said trawling nets that are used for fishing and single-use plastics are some of the biggest threats facing the turtles, because they often confuse plastic for food and can easily get stuck in fishing nets.

“It is so important that we educate people about single-use plastic. These teeny little turtles, that are no bigger than the palm of your hand, are going out there and eating bits and bits of broken down plastic,” said Ranly.

Additionally, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries department, the best thing people can do to help save sea turtles is “keep our rivers and oceans free of trash.”

Adam Reitzel, a professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said sea turtles may also be impacted by the effects of climate change.

“For most of the organisms living in these environments, temperature influences pretty much every molecular and physiological process they have. It’s like a vaccination rollout; it’s all individual decisions, but they have cumulative impacts,” said Reitzel.

As a result, he said, changes in ocean temperatures can impact both the turtles and their food sources.

Regardless the challenges, the South Carolina Aquarium will be able to continue its work to save sea turtles, thanks to the generosity of numerous donors.