Odie's Epic Journey

The National Aquarium's newest Kemp's ridley sea turtle has been acclimating at our Animal Care and Rescue Center since his arrival last October—but it's almost time for his grand debut in our main building's Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit.

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Homer's "The Odyssey" is an ancient Greek poem that details the travels of a king named Odysseus and his lengthy 10-year journey to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Much like this classic Greek hero, our very own Odysseus, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle, is no stranger to a long journey on the high seas.

Before arriving in our care in October 2022, Odysseus—affectionately called Odie by our staff—spent most of his life in the Cayman Islands at a Kemp's ridley breeding program he had been a part of since the 1980s. This breeding program was created to support the natural population of Kemp's ridley sea turtles, which had become nearly extinct due to hunting and unintentional bycatch. Although Kemp's are still the most endangered species of sea turtle, their numbers have seen a promising increase in recent years, leading to the conclusion of the breeding program at the Cayman Turtle Centre.

When the program ended last year, it was time for Odie and nine other Kemp's that were also part of the program to be relocated. Since they've spent their entire lives in human care, these turtles were unable to be released to their natural habitats. The National Aquarium volunteered to give Odie a permanent home and provide him with the highest levels of care and welfare for the rest of his life.

Traveling in Style

Before arriving in our care, Odie had a brief stay at Sea World Orlando. He made his way from Orlando to Baltimore in October by way of a private jet belonging to National Aquarium Board Member Jack Dwyer, founder of CFG Bank. Our many thanks to Jack for the generous donation of the use of his plane to transport Odie, and to CFG Bank—the lead sponsor of the Aquarium's Waterfront Campus project—for its continued support of our mission.

Since his arrival in Baltimore, Odie has been spending time at our Animal Care and Rescue Center for a standard quarantine period—but this isn't where he'll stay. This summer, Odie will be transitioning to our Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit, where he'll serve as an ambassador for sea turtle conservation.

Odie in Quarantine

All animals that arrive in our care, including Odie, undergo a routine quarantine period before they're moved to their habitat in our main building. Quarantine gives our staff the opportunity to monitor the health and behavior of new animals and perform medical exams.

According to Odie's main caretaker at the ACRC, National Aquarium Aquarist Ashleigh Roche, his quarantine period was smooth sailing all around.

"It took a few weeks for him to really acclimate, but that's typical for any animal as they get used to their new environment," Ashleigh explained. "Once Odie got settled, he began eating really well and showing us his very laidback personality."

Odie, who is 42 years old, is most likely to be found napping or resting on the bottom of his pool at the ACRC—unsurprisingly low-energy behavior given his age. Despite his ultra-chill personality, Odie is an eager participant in feeding time.

Ashleigh describes Odie as a very good eater, especially when it comes to his favorite food, mahi-mahi (with mackerel coming in at a close second). This wasn't always the case, according to Ashleigh; Odie seemed to initially prefer squid and shrimp.

Our team noticed a unique behavior during feeding time shortly after Odie's arrival: He had the tendency to drop his food, then go back to retrieve his meal later. Our experts are unsure how this behavior started, but they knew they wanted to work with him to improve it—once Odie is on exhibit, any dropped food is guaranteed to get snatched up by another Atlantic Coral Reef resident. Ashleigh began giving Odie smaller pieces of food and focused on providing his favorites as much as possible to help limit this dropping behavior, which has greatly improved since Odie's arrival thanks to her hard work.

Caretaker Ringing a Cowbell in a Pool at the ACRC with Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle, Odie, Approaching Underwater

Although Odie came to us with experience being fed by hand or with tongs, Ashleigh's team is helping him learn a new method for feeding time that is used for many animals throughout the Aquarium: target training. This method involves training an animal to recognize a specific target placed in the water during feeding; the animal then swims over to the target to receive its meal. In addition to training Odie to respond to a visual target, the team is training him to recall to an audio cue as well, such as a clicker or cow bell. The goal is for Odie to recognize the audio cue as a sign that it's time to swim to the feeding station and eat, even if he isn't close enough to the target to see it when he's on exhibit.

During feeding, Ashleigh and the team have also been incorporating tactile enrichment, which means that Odie receives shell scratches and is then positively reinforced with food. This type of reinforcement helps Odie become acclimated to touch so that he's more comfortable when being physically handled for exams. It also provides an opportunity to scratch algae off his shell, which tends to accumulate since he spends a lot of time lying still and napping.

Ashleigh explained that being a part of the beginning of Odie's National Aquarium journey has been an especially gratifying experience.

"It's been really great to create a bond with Odie throughout quarantine," Ashleigh said. "Seeing him at the very beginning when he first arrived and then getting to know his personality, learning what he likes and dislikes, and then being able to eventually see him on exhibit—it's going to be special seeing him thriving in a more natural environment."

Odie's Health

When Odie arrived in our care, our Animal Health experts immediately noticed a papilloma, which is similar to a skin tag, on the right side of his neck. Papillomas are a cause for concern in sea turtles because they have been associated with a specific virus that causes these masses to grow into debilitating tumors. Since the team wanted to biopsy Odie's papilloma right away, he received a medical exam immediately upon his arrival. Thankfully, the papilloma came back negative for the virus.

In March, our team traveled with Odie to Compass Veterinary Neurology in Annapolis for a CT scan. Odie has a noticeable scar—about 1 centimeter in diameter—that resulted from the removal of a mass when he was at the Cayman Turtle Centre. The goal of the CT scan was for our team to better understand how this scar has impacted Odie's sinuses—and whether they needed to modify his care as a result. Although the removal of the mass and resulting scar remodeled the structure of Odie's sinuses, the CT scan images showed that his air passages are clear.

Odie's CT scan in Annapolis presented the opportunity to not only get a clearer picture of his sinuses, but also his lungs. Because of Odie's size and the thickness of his shell, the team was having a difficult time obtaining clear radiographs of his lungs using the radiograph machine at the ACRC. The CT scan images also showed that Odie's lungs are perfectly healthy.

Odie certainly arrived in our care in good shape, but he's only improved since October. The difference in his health is clear in the color of his shell, which is a more vibrant green than it was when he first arrived. Like the skin of other animals—including humans—the appearance, texture and quality of a sea turtle's shell is a good external indicator of overall health.

Pecorino the Pool-Mate

In early March, Odie received a pool-mate in the ACRC: Pecorino, who is also a Kemp's ridley. Pecorino arrived in our care in September 2020 with injuries consistent with a boat propeller strike to his head. Although the laceration healed quickly, Pecorino's injuries caused brain trauma that has led to cognitive deficiencies. As a result, he wouldn't have appropriate predator avoidance in his natural habitat and has been deemed non-releasable.

Placing Odie and Pecorino in the same space was an important step in getting Odie ready to go on exhibit. He'll be in Atlantic Coral Reef with dozens of other exhibit residents, so our team needed to observe his reaction to having another animal in his space at the ACRC. Much like the rest of Odie's experience here, it's been a smooth process overall.

"Feeding has been challenging at times when Odie has dropped his food, because Pecorino has the tendency to snatch it up," Ashleigh explained. "But other than that, it's been going well. They both appear to be fairly independent and they're cohabitating peacefully."

Both turtles have been interacting with enrichment in their shared space, such as artificial pieces of kelp and a PVC pipe ring that they can swim through. They also have an artificial piece of coated PVC that mimics driftwood, which they can push around the pool.

Moving to a New Home

The last time guests would've spotted a sea turtle in Atlantic Coral Reef was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a hawksbill was on exhibit. Although no one on the team that will be caring for Odie in his new habitat has direct experience working with a sea turtle in Atlantic Coral Reef, our experts are using Odie's behavior in the ACRC as a reference point for how he might behave while on exhibit. For example, in the ACRC, he's spending a lot of time on the bottom of his enclosure, so it's possible he could also spend a lot of time on the bottom of the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit. Since the water in Atlantic Coral Reef is about three times deeper than Odie's current space at the ACRC, he could also spend a lot of time diving.

Atlantic Coral Reef was picked as Odie's new habitat for two reasons: The space is an appropriate size for a Kemp's ridley (the smallest of all seven species of sea turtle), and it replicates the natural habitat of this species, which is found in the Atlantic Ocean from Florida to New England and in the Gulf of Mexico.

It's helpful to have reference points from observing Odie's behavior so far, but the team won't truly know how he will react to being on exhibit until he's there. According to Curator of Blue Wonders Jay Bradley, the team is well prepared thanks to months of cross-team collaboration.

"We've been working very closely with Ashleigh and her team to learn as much as we can about Odie and his behaviors, and we've also been keeping close tabs on his target training progress," Jay said. "All of this preparation will help ensure that his transition is as smooth as possible."

Our team has been heavily focused on making sure that Odie's new home is, above all, safe for him. There are a lot of nooks and crannies in the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit, and the team quickly identified the need to ensure that Odie, whose shell measures about 2 feet long and 1.5 feet wide, wouldn't get stuck in any tight spaces. The solution was in the form of a life-size replica of his shell, constructed by our exhibit fabrication team. Divers swam through the exhibit with this shell replica to identify areas where Odie could potentially get stuck, and then the team worked to modify the exhibit to eliminate those potential hazards.

Support Sea Turtle Conservation

Here at the National Aquarium, we're well acquainted with Kemp's ridleys. Every fall, we rescue and rehabilitate dozens of cold-stunned sea turtles, many of them Kemp's like Odie, before returning them to their ocean home. Currently, little to no direct federal support exists for this crucial conservation work. That's why we're working with dozens of organizations across the country to encourage Congress to pass the bipartisan Sea Turtle Rescue Assistance Act, which would provide federal funding for sea turtle stranding response and rehabilitation.

Odie's upcoming move is momentous for several reasons. In addition to being the first sea turtle in Atlantic Coral Reef in decades, Odie will be the first Kemp's ridley to ever be on exhibit in the Aquarium. Many guests will remember Calypso, the three-finned green sea turtle that was a fixture of our Blacktip Reef exhibit; Odie's arrival in our main building will also be the first time we've had a sea turtle on exhibit since Calypso's passing in 2020.

Armed with months of hard work and cross-team collaboration, we're looking forward to welcoming Odie to his new home in Atlantic Coral Reef—and we're confident that our newest shelled ambassador will inspire our guests to be advocates for sea turtle conservation!

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