When two damaged Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were brought to Sea Life Aquarium Grapevine, rescuers were hopeful they could be rehabilitated and rejoin other marine life in the wild.
But Roxy and Squirt proved to be too mangled to be returned. Their destiny looked bleak.
“Roxy is missing two limbs after probably getting into a crab’s nest. Nature is sometimes cruel,” said Karen Rifenbury, site displays curator. “Squirt is a boat strike victim with a damaged shell. Both humans and natural environments can cause problems.”
The Sea Life staff bonded quickly with the two endangered turtles and found a solution.
Sea Life is building a Turtle Rescue Center, which it plans to unveil on July 11, the attraction’s second anniversary.
The public exhibit will provide a permanent home for Roxy and Squirt.
“The animals are ambassadors for their community,” Rifenbury said. “It’s a labor of love. That’s what we’re all here for.”
Although Roxy and Squirt will never be freed, “any quality of life we can give these turtles is better than the alternative,” Rifenbury said. “All we can do is offer them the best care possible.”
The rescue center includes display tanks that were specially designed to the depth the injured turtles are able to safely dive, and educational information on conservation and turtle rescue.
“What we’re creating is a turtle rehabilitation center,” Rifenbury said. “The turtles we take in won’t be able to go back out.”
Before being transferred to the aquarium, both injured Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were rescued and rehabilitated by Animal Rehabilitation Keep (ARK) in Port Aransas.
Roxy was found stranded off Mustang Island Gulf Beach in 2007 after both left limbs were bitten off. Her right limb had suffered a large bite, limiting mobility on her left side.
Squirt was found stranded on the Padre Island National Seashore in 2009 after a boat strike caused paralysis of both rear flippers and a cracked shell, affecting the ability to dive.
Both turtles were named in a Sea Life contest: Roxy kept her original name and Squirt was the overwhelming choice because of a sea turtle character in the movie Finding Nemo.
“Roxy weighed 14 grams when we found her as a small hatchling — no bigger than a silver dollar — and ARK raised her to 19 kilograms,” Rifenbury said. “Squirt has bubble butt due to her boat strike accident. When she heals, we will attach a small weight that will allow her to dive.”
By taking in sea turtles, Sea Life will allow ARK and other sanctuaries to free up space for animals that are releasable, Rifenbury said.
In addition to seeing the two endangered sea turtles in the new exhibit, visitors will also be able to learn about Flip, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle found stranded on the shores of the Netherlands. Sea Life Grapevine, along with its sister attraction in Holland, coordinated the turtle’s rehabilitation and transport back to the United Stated, and worked alongside ARK to assist with the turtle’s release back into its native Gulf of Mexico in November.
In the aquarium’s ocean tank, guests can view Hope, a green sea turtle who was rescued after being hit by a boat off the coast of Florida.
Low windows in the new exhibit will provide youngsters the opportunity to see the critters “eye-to-eye,” Rifenbury said.
Iain Scouller, Sea Life Aquarium Grapevine general manager, said the organization is excited to provide a home for the sea creatures that will offer sea turtle education and ocean conservation.
“Along with learning more about sea turtles, we want Sea Life visitors to know that whether it’s conservation or recycling, you don’t have to live by the beach to make a difference for the creatures living in our oceans.” he said.
In celebration of the rescue center opening and the attraction’s second anniversary, a party with cake will be held at 4 p.m. July 11 on the second level of the attraction.
“We hope by telling these stories that people can make at least one change,” Rifenbury said, such as not putting trash in the ocean or driving boats too fast, especially in sanctuary sites.
“These animals are paying the ultimate price,” she said. “We want to trigger some good actions by people to care.”