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Fighting against the tide

Distressed animals suffering from exposure to Red Tide keep the staff and volunteers busy at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Published October 2, 2005

CLEARWATER - It was lunchtime for the sea turtles at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Fish for the healthier turtles. Squid via feeding tube for the weaker ones.

After two hard months caring for turtles made ill by Red Tide, the aquarium seemed to be catching a bit of a break Friday. The loggerhead patients, once so numerous that they lined the halls, were down to five survivors out of 36 brought in for treatment.

They had regained enough strength to raise their heads for air.

Sirata Sam, a loggerhead found behind the Sirata Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach, was ready for deeper water.

Tammy Langer, who directs sea turtle rehabilitation, supported his jaw with her left hand and pried open his mouth with a plastic wedge with her right. Volunteer Rich Bolduc f Clearwater dropped a fish in his mouth. Sam, about 200 pounds, caramel-colored with big, dark eyes, swallowed it himself.

"Isn't he cute?" Langer said. "He just makes you want to kiss him."

In a tank nearby, Kai, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle found last week, was swimming nonstop. His head had stopped twitching. The Kemp's ridley is a threatened species, the smallest sea turtle.

"Isn't he gorgeous?" Langer said to a volunteer.

The active swimmer had come in Monday, a dead dolphin had been found Wednesday and one of the loggerheads arrived Thursday.

Still, it didn't seem like an alarming trend.

Then the phone started ringing.

"Aw, naw!" Langer said into the phone. "Is there any way you can transport her?"

Boaters had found a sick turtle 10 miles offshore from Treasure Island. A few hours later, another turtle turned up dead south of the Pier in St. Petersburg. Then still another near Egmont Key, this one so big it virtually needed a license plate, or at least a boat big enough for a turtle of more than 300 pounds.

"This is picking up again, four turtles in two days," said Dana Zucker , community relations director.

When the calls come in, a chain of logistical problems need to be solved. How quickly can they get there, need to get there? How will they transport it, by land or by sea? Who will do the driving, the immediate care, the lifting? Where will the turtle go when it gets to the aquarium? Is there a tank available, one big enough?

Aquarium staff and volunteers scrambled, and a day like Friday shows how thin the facility's resources can be stretched. They have pontoon boats good on the Intracoastal and a Sea-Doo to get to the animal for immediate care. But they don't have a rescue boat, so they have to find one.

"We direly need a rescue boat," said Zucker, roughly estimating an outfitted boat of 21 to 26 feet might cost $20,000 to $50,000. "Besides $3-million to redo our place, that's my next job."

But the immediate problem was tanks for the two newcomers on the way.

Langer and volunteers moved some of the turtles and got two new tanks ready, then a van pulled up with the first arrival.

"They're back," said a strapping volunteer, Raymond Ellis, a good man to have around when you have to lift a turtle.

The back doors of the van opened and the loggerhead was carried to a mat, where Langer measured it and hosed it down. Then the turtle went in a tank, and volunteers Sharon Deline of Largo and Mike Sosslau of Sand Key watched to see that it was surfacing to breathe.

"I just came up here to work on the database when all hell broke loose again," Sosslau said.

In the meantime, Dr. Janine Cianciolo, the aquarium's veterinarian, was off duty on a much-needed vacation. Yet she was in her boat and heading toward the huge turtle floating near Egmont Key.

Friday night the turtle was resting comfortably at the aquarium. At 350 to 380 pounds, it was the biggest Langer had ever seen. She said the people who found the turtle had stayed with it for four hours.

While they waited, they named him "Percy" for perseverance.

--Times photographer Ted McLaren contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 2, 2005, 01:57:16]

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