Saving a Sea Turtle

Technology |  2 min. read

When this young sea turtle was rescued on the New Jersey coast, she weighed under 75 pounds.  Now that might not sound bad, but when you’re supposed to end up around 250 pounds as a grown-up, that’s not good.

Also not good – her rear flippers were paralyzed, she had curvature of the spine, and her shell was broken, cracked with one piece missing altogether.  That not only left her vulnerable out in the wild, but meant that as she grew, her shell would become deformed, which could eventually be just as dangerous.

So when this juvenile (the technical term) Loggerhead Sea Turtle (the technical name) ended up at the Birch Aquarium in San Diego – she needed a lot of TLC.  And with that care, she thrived – growing (almost tripling her weight), swimming, eating, doing all the things sea turtles do (well, ok, maybe swimming and eating is just about all sea turtles do).

But as she grew, and her shell grew – that broken shell needed more than just TLC.

The solution?  Not unlike a lot of growing teenagers, it turned out she needed braces.  Well, actually, just a brace.  For her shell.

And when the aquatic experts at the aquarium got together with the digital media experts (yes, that makes sense.  Stick with us a moment) at UC San Diego – a brace for a turtle turned out to be a job for 3D printing (that’s how the digital media folks got involved).

The brace itself is a piece of hard plastic.  Not much to look at, but precisely printed to fit the gap in her shell.  There are some other parts to help hold the brace in place (more plastic, and synthetic rubber), in turn held in place with a special epoxy for use in water.  (And all of those, are materials using petrochemicals.)

Now her shell is solid and complete again (though as she keeps growing, at some point she will need another, bigger brace) which has made for a happy, active turtle.  And as Jennifer Frohlich, a UC San Diego vet, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Loggerheads are very charismatic, very friendly … They’re the Labrador dog of sea turtles.  She…knows when people are in front of the tank, and she hams it up.”

If you’re in San Diego, you can get a taste of Loggerhead charisma for yourself, in the Hall of Fishes at Birch Aquarium.  No need to rush though—loggerheads usually live at least 50 years, so the Birch’s sea turtle should have another 40 or more years ahead of her.

And if you can’t get to San Diego, here’s a peek.

We do have one improvement to suggest though.  How about a name, something a bit more personal than “Loggerhead Sea Turtle”?  Like “Shelley”!  Think you could do better?  Send us your suggestions.