Once-blind Turtle Set Free

October 12, 1994|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

BACK BAY, Va. -- The crashing waves off the coast here never looked so good . . . at least to this far-sighted sea turtle.

Having had his sight restored by Baltimore surgeons, he swam off to freedom yesterday and into the annals of medical history, the only sea turtle to have undergone cataract surgery.

"He was off like a shot," said Andy Stamper, a veterinary intern from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, moments after watching the turtle lurch inch by inch toward the surf. "He seemed to know right where he was going. There are no guarantees out there, but he's got a good chance."

When last seen, the turtle came up for a final gulp of air before disappearing below the surface about 200 feet offshore from this isolated wildlife refuge. It headed south in the Atlantic Ocean -- the proper direction in turtle migration season.

The 105-pound loggerhead, operated on at the National Aquarium on June 11, had achieved worldwide fame and won the affection of people as far away as France, South Africa and Thailand. Foreign journalists, doctors and even government representatives called the aquarium to express interest and sympathy for the turtle.

"I feel a little bit of a paternal instinct. It's tough to see your favorite patient go off," said Dr. Robert George of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "I can't believe that's the same turtle we saw a year ago."

Its eyesight is far from 100 percent, being able to see only blurred images. But the reptile -- part of a breed now threatened by man after 180 million years on Earth -- has come a long way since a Virginia Beach fisherman found it floating offshore last October.

With fish hooks in its neck and cataracts in both eyes, possibly from a bacterial infection, the turtle was emaciated and floating helplessly in the water. Near death, it weighed 78 pounds.

"It looked like it was possessed. Its eyes were white. It was the most emaciated turtle I have ever seen," Dr. George said.

Marine biologists diagnosed that its sickly condition was largely due to blindness. Turtles depend on their vision to locate and track food.

It has spent the past four months in a private pool at the aquarium, learning to adjust to its new outlook on the world. Passing the test to go back to the wild meant being able to track food at the other end of the pool.

The turtle wasn't dubbed with a name since aquarium officials don't like to treat rescued animals as pets. Experts also don't know its gender because its gonads are encased in a shell.

But the 3-foot-long brown-shelled animal made its mark on Baltimore and the history books.

Marine scientists decided to give experimental surgery a try since blindness would mean inevitable death for the turtle. They cited the animal's troubled existence -- only one out of every 1,000 loggerhead turtle hatchlings live to reproduce.

"It does a lot of damage when you take out even one of them. This species is struggling," Mr. Stamper said.

Loggerhead turtles can live to be 50 or more years old and can weigh up to 350 pounds. They certainly aren't prone to cardiac problems -- the average sea turtle's heart beats but twice a minute.

In the past century, sea turtles of all breeds have been decimated by boat propellers and fishing nets.

Dr. Gregory Ogawa, formerly of the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, was one of two surgeons to perform the surgery.

"Its vision isn't sharp. It still might have trouble finding smaller bits of food. But the surgery made the difference between being able to make it and not make it," Dr. Ogawa said.

"This has been a tremendous study for medical science, and it helped this one turtle to survive," he said.

Marine scientists were not able to afford a satellite tag, so the turtle's whereabouts -- and his fate -- will likely never be known.

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