Visitors to the National Aquarium this year have a special opportunity to meet a loggerhead turtle hatchling currently thriving in the “Maryland: Mountains to the Sea” exhibit. Recently dubbed “Sheldon” through a public naming contest that garnered thousands of votes, the baby loggerhead will remain at the Aquarium until he has grown enough to be released back into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina.
In the wild, loggerheads are endangered because, although they’re not hunted for their meat or shells like many other turtle species, they’re susceptible to “bycatch,” or the accidental capture of marine animals in commercial fishing equipment. Sheldon arrived at the National Aquarium as a part of North Carolina Aquarium’s Loggerhead Head Start program, which rescues imperiled loggerhead hatchlings and places them in the care of partner aquariums along the East Coast so that they might survive to adulthood.
Loggerhead turtles like Sheldon can weigh less than an ounce and measure less than two inches when they hatch in sandy nests along temperate coastlines around the globe and are vulnerable to a variety of predators as they make their way back to the sea and begin their lives in the water. However, if they survive their first year, loggerheads can grow to be the largest of all hard-shelled turtles, averaging three feet in length and about 250 pounds. Sheldon’s survival is not only a boon to the loggerhead population; loggerheads and other sea turtles are a crucial link in marine ecosystems and are essential to maintaining the health of sea grass beds and coral reefs.
Sheldon will spend this year under the care of the National Aquarium’s Fishes Department, living under optimal conditions until he’s ready to return to open water. But Sheldon isn’t the only turtle making his temporary home at the Aquarium with designs on returning to the Atlantic. The National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program – celebrating its 25th anniversary throughout 2016 – is currently caring for more than a dozen sea turtles rehabilitating off-exhibit from the effects of becoming “cold-stunned” in the quickly cooling waters of the Atlantic this fall and winter. Like Sheldon, these turtles will be released back into open water when they’re ready, although many will require intensive treatment from the Aquarium’s skilled veterinary staff for injuries sustained before they were rescued. These injuries could include hypothermia-like symptoms as well as contusions and damage sustained through boat strikes and other traumas. The Animal Rescue team will release rehabilitated turtles into warm waters locally when possible this summer, but as farsouth as Florida and places in between in the spring.
Until he’s ready for release, Sheldon can be seen by visitors in the Coastal Beach Exhibit, part the Aquarium’s popular “Maryland: Mountains to the Sea” section, where other exhibits feature American bullfrogs, blue crabs, diamondback terrapins and a variety of distinctive fishes.