Biologist’s mission to aid injured sea turtles brings sorrow, joy
A Tiki Island homeowner had found an injured green turtle floating helplessly in the water and called the turtle-rescue phone number, 1-800-TURTLE5, linked to Howell’s government cell phone.
Howell told the caller to put the turtle in a box. Within minutes she was on her way to Tiki Island in a four-wheel-drive pickup owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Turtle Research Facility.
On arrival, she peered into a box containing a turtle severely injured by a boat propeller, most likely after being immobilized by cold and floating defenselessly on the surface. The bones from his flippers were exposed, a deep wound exposed his insides and his head was rotting.
« My first thought was, ‘He’s not going to survive the night,’ » Howell recalled. « How can this animal still be alive? »
« There is no budget line at all and that’s because of jurisdiction, » Higgins said.
Turtles in the water are the responsibility of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries, which includes the research facility, but once out of water, the animals are the responsibility of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Higgins said about $200,000 of the research facility’s $880,000 annual budget is used for turtle rescue and rehabilitation. That compares with annual budgets of $1 million or more at similar turtle rescue operations, such as Sea Turtles Inc. on South Padre Island, he said. Sea Turtle Inc.’s website boasts of raising $1.3 million for its capital program this year that will be matched by a wealthy donor, an option unavailable to a federal agency.
Last year the Galveston facility handled more than 221 turtles, alive and dead, Howell said. That number doesn’t include 50 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles flown in from the Boston area in December after the aquarium there was overwhelmed by more than 1,000 cold-stunned turtles.
The facility is part of a complex of NOAA buildings on the site of the former Fort Crockett, a block from the Galveston seawall and behind the San Luis Hotel. Primarily devoted to research, the facility played a part in pioneering a new way to determine how pollutants, such as those from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, might be affecting turtles.
In the largest building, known as the turtle barn, 176 young loggerhead turtles each swim in separate tanks. They are to be used to test new models of turtle-saving equipment known as turtle excluder devices. The tanks are supplied with 150,000 gallons of salt water pumped from the Gulf of Mexico.
Howell is accustomed to calls at odd hours reporting turtles in distress.
« It’s like a box of chocolates when I don’t know what it’s going to be, » she said.
The calls often have nothing to do with sea turtles, ranging from people who want to know how to get rid of the turtle they bought at the pet store to calls about freshwater turtles that may have been washed into the Gulf by heavy rain. Howell is restricted to dealing with sea turtles; so she has memorized the phone numbers for rehabilitation centers that handle wildlife other than sea turtles.
« You learn to be very patient with the public, » Howell said.
Many of the turtles Howell rescues are injured after being ensnared in fishing line, including the first turtle she rehabilitated after arriving at the research lab in 2008. She released the turtle back into the wild only to discover its body a few days later snagged in fishing line.
« It was heartbreaking to see it, » Howell said.
Since then she regularly collects discarded fishing line that accumulates at Surfside jetty, the fishing spot with the most calls about fishing-line tangled turtles.
The distress call from Tiki Island that roused Howell from her gardening came Nov. 23 about the time a series of cold fronts were immobilizing scores of turtles along the Texas coast. Howell loaded the injured turtle into the pickup and took it to the research facility, then to a building informally known as the « turtle hospital. » The turtle was pumped full of antibiotics, given intravenous fluids and placed in one of the six tanks in an adjoining room, known as the turtle intensive care unit.
Howell never gives injured turtles names. « They are not your pets, » she said. Instead, the turtle was designated LNH141122-01, but Howell usually referred to the turtle as « little buddy, » a term she uses for all her unnamed charges.
Howell started referring to little buddy using the male pronoun even though it’s impossible to know the sex of a turtle by outward appearance until they reach full maturity, which can take 25 years.
The turtle from Tiki Island was kept on antibiotics, but Howell doubted it would survive. She called a veterinarian and consulted him about euthanizing the turtle. On the eighth day after he was found, she walked into the turtle ICU and looked at LNH14122-01. His eyes were open. « I’m thinking if this turtle has his eyes open, he’s going to make it, » she said.
Nine months later LNH14122-01 is swimming happily in one of two rehabilitation tanks in what is known as « the long line building. » Howell planned to release him into Christmas Bay, next to the Blue Water Highway in Brazoria County, where the marsh provides an ideal home for a young turtle.
« When you get one like that where the odds are against you and him, that makes it a victory, » Howell said.