Seattle veterinarians will test a rescued sea turtle on Friday to see whether treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, typically used for decompression sickness in human divers, has cured a buoyancy disorder preventing the marine reptile from being released back to the ocean.
Tucker, a 70-pound (32-kg), 20-year-old endangered olive ridley sea turtle, was found in December clinging to life along the Oregon Coast, far from his species’ usual warm-water habitat off Southern California and Mexico, Seattle Aquarium officials said.
Tucker has recovered from pneumonia and other complications from hypothermia but still has a buoyancy issue caused by internal gas bubbles in his body that prevent the reptile from diving or remaining underwater.
“It’s almost like the turtle is wearing a life preserver,” Seattle Aquarium spokesman Tim Kuniholm said on Thursday.
Aquarium vets brought Tucker to Virginia Mason Hospital on Monday for a session in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber there, making him the first non-human patient to visit the pressurized facility and the first sea turtle in the United States to undergo such a treatment for buoyancy problems.
Tucker will undergo testing on Friday to determine if the treatment is working and whether further sessions in the chamber are needed, Kuniholm said.
Kuniholm said Tucker must be able to regulate his buoyancy in order to survive in the wild, where he needs to dive beneath the surface for food and avoid predators as well as hazards such as boats.
“He could remain in human care, but that’s not our goal,” he added.
The hyperbaric treatment involves the turtle breathing 100 percent oxygen for more than two hours, hospital officials said. Tucker was sedated and observed closely while hooked up to a heart monitor and breathing tube.
“We have treated many scuba divers over the years for a gas bubble disease known as decompression sickness, which is also called ‘the bends.’ This is the first time we have been asked to assist in the care of a sea turtle, which are excellent divers themselves,” James Holm, medical director at the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine, said in a written statement.
(Reporting by Shelby Sebens in Portland, Oregon,; Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler)