Maritime Aquarium part of international effort to save sea turtles
By R.A. Schuetz
NORWALK — On a recent Tuesday morning, David Hudson, a research scientist at the Maritime Aquarium, spotted a lion’s mane jellyfish in the Norwalk Harbor. It was a translucent bell attached to a riot of orange, cloud-like tentacles — the lion’s mane — and it was soon joined by a dozen more. He took out his cell phone to text his colleague, Rachel Stein, to see if she wanted him to snag one.
Stein is sometimes called “the Jellyfish Mom,” and her expertise recently took her all the way to Colombia in an effort to save the loggerhead sea turtle, an animal that can grow up to six feet across and is at risk of becoming endangered.
As it turns out, loggerheads also love jellyfish.
So Stein and Hudson traveled from Norwalk to Santa Marta, Colombia, home of Mundo Marino Aquarium. Mundo Marino has been working to save the loggerhead sea turtles since 1999.
“What happens is in July, the hurricanes come in and they wash out the beaches where the loggerheads lay their eggs,” Hudson said. To prevent such large-scale loss, as storms approach, scientists rush out to save nests in danger of being washed away, rescuing anywhere from 500 to 1,000 eggs.
The turtles are nurtured by the aquarium until they’re a year old, when they are strong enough to release back to the sea. Last fall, the Maritime Aquarium began running a sea turtle nursery of its own, but Mundo Marino’s nursery operates on a much larger scale.
All of those young loggerheads have got to eat, and that’s where Stein came in. Most of the jellyfish pulsing through the Maritime Aquarium are cultivated by Stein on site, and in Colombia, she set about creating a similar system to raise local jellyfish for the turtles.
“Jellies are something they eat in the wild,” Stein said. “It’s about getting them that predatory instinct.”
To get the local jellyfish, the Stein and Hudson headed down to the beach. There, fishermen were pulling in nets filled with fish and picking through their catch as yellow-footed egrets gathered nearby in hopes of a meal. Along with the fish, the nets had pulled in a large number of jellies, and the Maritime Aquarium staff were able to nab five-gallon buckets full of the bycatch, including a surprising find. When they dumped the buckets into the holding tank, they discovered the creator of one of the most dangerous venoms in the world: a box jellyfish.
“It was sort of an adventure, because every time I reached my hand into the tank, I had to make sure I know where it was,” Stein said.
In addition to the box jellyfish were the much less dangerous jellyfish the young sea turtles, the lantern jellyfish. Stein showed the staff at Mundo Marino how to harvest gonadal tissue from the male and female lanterns in order to fertilize jellyfish eggs, the first step to creating a colony of polyps, each of which can create a large number of jellyfish.
The hope is the new lanterns that the Maritime Aquarium helped cultivate will be ready in time to start feeding next year’s cadre of turtles.
As for this year’s, they were released on April 28. Five hundred loggerhead sea turtles who had almost washed to sea before they were born had each grown to the size of two hands. One by one, they were placed onto the sand, and slowly, determinedly, they began to paddle back out into the world.
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