Chronicle: How a Chula Vista sea turtle was saved by a wetsuit

When Sapphire arrived at Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista in 2014, the loggerhead turtle had luggage. Now she has her own combination. So let’s dive into his story, okay?

It begins in Marathon, Florida, when Sapphire was taken to Turtle Hospital after being struck by a boat in the Florida Keys. The impact left him with a large crack in his rear hull, blindness in his right eye, and partial paralysis of his rear fins. She also had a severe buoyancy imbalance caused by gas trapped under her shell, which prevented her from submerging to sleep and eat.

All of this made Sapphire a bad candidate to be released into the wild, so she was airlifted to San Diego to settle in Living Coast, the National Wildlife Refuge Educational Zoo and Aquarium on the Sweetwater Marsh.

“Collisions with boats are a very common (source of) injury for sea turtles in the wild. You can see where the rudder of the boat hit her, and you can see the big crack in her shell where she had that disturbance, ”animal care specialist Aiyana Reisman said of the sea turtle, who is estimated to be between 19 and 25 years old. old.

Using marine weights glued to the back of her shell, Sapphire had the buoyancy she needed to lead a sea turtle life. She felt at home in the Living Coast Sharks and Rays exhibit, endearing visitors with her habit of floating in an upright “pear tree” position. Using squid as positive reinforcement, staff trained Sapphire to swim to a buoy, where longtime vet Dr Todd Cecil could give her regular checkups and monitor her multiple injuries.

But last spring, after six years of relative stability, Sapphire’s buoyancy issues returned. And they were more complicated this time.

Sea turtles grow throughout their lives and since arriving at Living Coast in 2014, Sapphire had gained 80 pounds. Its shell has grown too. The gas below began to move, and the counterweights no longer served. Staff and Dr Cecil noticed that Sapphire was having trouble falling asleep. She lost interest in food and found it difficult to surface to take a deep breath.

They knew that the weight stuck to its shell had to move too. But how?

Then an idea springs up. What if Sapphire had a wetsuit version of the weighted belt that divers use to help them stay submerged? The belt would have pockets for the weights, which would make it easier to change the weight distribution as Sapphire’s buoyancy changed.

Meanwhile, news of Sapphire’s challenges spread to the O’Neill Wetsuits Company in Santa Cruz. The company donated its materials and expertise to the cause, Living Coast sent the dimensions and the collaboration began.

Making a one-of-a-kind sea turtle suit during a pandemic isn’t something you can really prepare for. But at least the designers of O’Neill already had some experience with custom wetsuits.

“We have designed similar wetsuits for other marine species, such as dolphins, beluga whales and even a penguin. But the odd shape and hard shell of a turtle presented some unique challenges that made it a fun and interesting project for us, ”Vice President of Development Greg Clarke said in an email. “Working closely with the Living Coast organization has been its own reward. The work they do has such an impact. It was nice to see their passions firsthand.

The Sapphire project started at the end of September. Less than a month later, Clarke and his team had produced their first prototype. Living Coast staff moved Sapphire to the shallow touch pool for stingrays and sharks and began putting the turtle in his wetsuit. To everyone’s surprise, Sapphire didn’t seem to mind being suddenly accessorized.

“She was very comfortable,” Reisman said of the process, which involved wrapping the rectangle of neoprene under the turtle and then securing it to its shell with two straps. “She can feel everything through her shell, and I imagine something new like this would have been a real surprise to her. But it didn’t seem to bother her at all, which was very nice to see.

Thanks to the wetsuit and the adjustable weights, Sapphire was once again buoyant and balanced. Within 24 hours, she was eating, going upstairs for fresh air, and exercising. She wore and took off the weighted suit for a few months, and by December she no longer needed to wear it at all.

Today, Sapphire still floats horizontally and swims straight, and her human guardians breathe easier knowing that her suit will always be there if she needs it. Better yet, the idea is now here for the taking. And sharing.

“Everyone at O’Neill was really responsive and super-fast. They were definitely Sapphire’s Guardian Angels in 2020, ”said Reisman. “Dr. Cecil and I really hope this information will help other establishments that work with injured sea turtles. We want to encourage this kind of innovative thinking to help other animals as well.”

The Living Coast Discovery Center is currently closed to the public, but private small-group tours are available. Visit for more information.

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