Sea Turtle Rescue Center at SEA LIFE Grapevine Aquarium is helping Texas coastal reptiles
In North Texas, where longhorns and quarter horses are a common sight, Pancake sticks out.
First, she's a green sea turtle, a reptile native to the Texas coast who possesses a wide smooth shell.
And she has green skin.
But more importantly, Pancake is the first patient at the new sea turtle rescue center at SEA LIFE Grapevine Aquarium where she is on the road to recovery after having surgery for tumors.
The Grapevine aquarium is the first SEA LIFE in the United States to rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtles, an endangered species, officials said.
"We had the resources here," said Adam Nacci a spokesman with SEA LIFE Grapevine when asked how injured sea turtles from the Texas coast ended up in North Texas. It's a five-hour drive from Galveston to Grapevine. And it's almost nine hours from Brownsville. "In many hospitals for sea turtles on the coast, they could get overwhelmed with injured turtles. We can provide a place for them to rehabilitate."
Boat strikes, plastic debris, viruses such as fibropapilloma and cold weather are the leading causes of injuries to sea turtles across the world, marine experts say.
Just a few months ago, dozens of sea turtles suffered from being cold stunned, a hypothermic reaction that occurs when sea turtles are exposed to prolonged cold water temperatures.
So far this year, there have been 2,894 stranded or injured sea turtles on the Texas coast, according to statistics from Padre Island National Seashore. In 2017, there were 773.
"It is reassuring to know they (Grapevine sea turtle rescue center) are there to help if needed," Mary Kay Skoruppa of the Texas Coastal Ecological services field office said in a news release.
The green sea turtle gets its name not for its green shell, but for its green skin. How Pancake came by her name was a matter of speculation at the aquarium.
Grapevine SEA LIFE opened its rehabilitation facility and hospital just a few weeks ago, welcoming Pancake and four other sea turtles. Pancake is scheduled to be released back into the wild in July, but the other four will remain in Grapevine because they are not releasable due to their injuries.
"With our new permit and hospital, in addition to rescue, we can now care for sick or injured turtles until they're well enough for release back into the wild," said Karen Rifenbury, the curator at SEA LIFE.
And what about that long ride from the Texas coast to Grapevine and the return trip? Grapevine aquarists say sea turtles can handle it with the right equipment.
Generally, when transported, sea turtles are wrapped in wet towels in a tub, placed inside a vehicle with the temperature at 75 degrees. Eye drops and a squirt bottle are used when needed.
"I would check the temperature every 30 minutes," said Krista Huebner, who oversees Grapevine's sea turtle rescue center.
Pancake arrived in Grapevine after having surgery to remove six tumors that developed from fibropapilloma. That's a virus that could be fatal to sea turtles as tumors develop on their skin and internal organs which could interfere with swimming, eating, breathing, vision and reproduction, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Pancake was found to have golf-ball-sized tumors when she was picked up on Laguna Madre near Corpus Christi on the Texas coast.
The Grapevine sea turtle rescue center has three other green sea reptiles — Thalassia, Eddie and Boomerang — and one hawksbill turtle, Scotti, who have suffered such severe injuries that they will never be released back into the wild.
Huebner estimated the rescue center could handle about 10 small turtles and six to seven medium-sized sea turtles.
"Pancake is in quarantine because we don't want any of the other turtles to get the disease," Huebner said referring to her fibropapilloma.
Once Pancake is healthy, she will be released back into the wild. Other injured sea turtles who are nursed back to good health also will be released through work with Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other Texas coast sea turtle hospitals.
But it won't be anywhere near North Texas — there are just too many horses and longhorns in the area.
At the Grapevine center, visitors can get first-hand experience with the process of rescuing and helping injured sea turtles. Visitors can handle a mock turtle and go through a rehabilitation journey, nursing the reptile back to good health.
The Grapevine aquarium and sea turtle rescue center is at 3000 Grapevine Mills Parkway.