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Rare leatherback turtle dies in tank

Aquarium officials don't yet know why Anna, who had shown signs of improvement, died Tuesday morning.

By WILMA NORTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Anna, the rare leatherback turtle the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has spent almost three months and at least $45,000 trying to save, died suddenly Tuesday.

The turtle seemed to be doing well Monday. She ate 14 pounds of squid, swimming to the side of her pool and taking it without assistance. She had gained 11 pounds, up to 886, since a physical two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, Marine science staff members found her dead about 5 a.m. Tuesday. A necropsy was being conducted to determine what happened.

"It was kind of a big shock to all of us," said aquarium spokesman Scott Swain. "We can't even speculate (on the cause of death) because we were so surprised by it."

The endangered leatherbacks -- which have no hard shell -- live in deep water, diving to depths of 4,000 feet. None has lived long in a tank.

"We knew none had ever survived in captivity very long," Swain said, "but we were very hopeful."

She was doing so well, he said, that aquarium officials had begun to talk about the possibility of building a special enclosure for her as a permanent home.

"Now she's gone," he said.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium estimates it has spent at least $45,000 for staff, transportation and medicine to save Anna.

The aquarium's $1.5-million annual budget comes primarily from paid admissions, private donations and various educational programs. Late last year, aquarium officials said they were struggling because donations and admissions were down.

David Godfrey, executive director of the Caribbean Conservation Corps, a Gainesville-based group dedicated to sea turtle research, said the aquarium's effort with Anna have served a useful purpose even though the turtle died.

"Would saving this one turtle have directly been worth spending so much time and money? Probably not," Godfrey said. "But look how much attention this turtle has brought" to the endangered species.

"This turtle served an incredibly important outreach and educational function," Godfrey said.

Officials at the aquarium knew that saving Anna long-term would be difficult, if not impossible. She was rescued off Anna Maria Island on March 4, tangled in a crab trap. Her left flipper had to be amputated.

Anna was released March 16 but turned up on Indian Rocks Beach again 10 days later. The aquarium staff suspected Anna was trying to nest, so they took her to Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater for an ultrasound scan to see if eggs could be detected.

The results were inconclusive, but a few days later she dropped an unfertilized, yolkless egg in her shallow tank.

The turtle was released a second time April 7, but again, she was found in shallow water off Anna Maria Island two weeks later.

Aquarium officials said then that they would not attempt a third release and would hope for the best.

Leatherbacks are something of a mystery to scientists. They live far out in the open ocean. They hatch on a beach, then reappear only to lay eggs. Unlike loggerheads, leatherbacks do not always return to the beach of their birth to lay eggs.

"Almost nobody in the world has pictures of or has even encountered a juvenile leatherback," Godfrey said. "They're just a critter that needs the wild to survive."

The Clearwater aquarium had never encountered a leatherback until one was found dead on Anclote Key a year ago. Since then, aquarium staff members have been called to three others tangled in crab traps. The most recent tangled turtle was cut free two weeks ago.

Godfrey said leatherback activity in the waters around Florida, especially on the east coast, has increased in the past decade.

"Why that is is a bit of a mystery," he said. "We don't know yet whether the wider Caribbean population of leatherbacks is going up. . . . We don't know whether we're seeing turtles that have typically nested in other places shifting their nesting places."

More leatherback activity in Florida waters means there is more chance of the turtles coming into contact with commercial fishing vessels, he said. And current turtle excluders used in nets are not large enough to free leatherbacks.

Scientists estimate that the average leatherback weighs about 1,000 pounds and lives to be about 100. Anna, whose weight ranged from about 850 to 886 pounds during her captivity, was estimated to be 20 to 30 years old.

The largest leatherback recorded weighed 2,000 pounds and was found dead off the coast of Wales, Godfrey said. Leatherbacks range from the waters off Alaska to those off South Africa.

The Clearwater aquarium learned some things that will help if another leatherback is brought in for rehabilitation, Swain said. For one, the turtles need to be in a soft-sided pool because a regular pool scrapes their skin.

After the necropsy is complete, Swain said, the aquarium will offer Anna to some marine research organizations for study. If no one is interested, the aquarium will find a suitable resting place.

"We will bury her somewhere," Swain said.

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