Fla. sea turtle finds desert home

2012-02-19T00:00:00Z Fla. sea turtle finds desert homeThe Arizona Republic The Arizona Republic Arizona Daily Star
February 19, 2012 12:00 am  • 

TEMPE - Sea turtles are famous for their epic travels.

Arizona is now home to Ziva, a female endangered green sea turtle who had been stranded on a beach in Florida and whose journey to Tempe's Sea Life Arizona Aquarium is history in the making.

As an endangered species, green sea turtles cannot be housed in captivity unless they are unable to live in their natural habitat. It took the cooperation of the federal government, Florida, Arizona and a Georgia turtle-rehabilitation center to secure Ziva's home in the desert.

Two years ago Ziva was hit by a boat off the coast of Florida, making it difficult for her to swim and dive.

Her nearly two-year rehab included swimming with a life jacket to help her relearn how to navigate and allow her shell to heal. She graduated to using weights to help her dive into the water so she could feed and swim properly.

Amy Hupp, who accompanied Ziva to Arizona and cared for her for the past year and a half during rehabilitation at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, said Ziva is a survivor and a charmer.

"She's (swimming) a bit lopsided, but she's doing great," Hupp said as she watched Ziva swim in the aquarium's med-pool. "She's home."

Ziva's journey to her new home began with a near tragedy. She was injured in 2010 by a boat strike, which often kills or seriously injures sea turtles, said Hupp, who cares for turtles with similar injuries at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.

In May 2010, someone called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation to report an injured sea turtle on a Florida beach, said Meghan Koperski, part of the Florida team that approved Sea Life Arizona aquarium's permit providing a permanent home for Ziva.

"When we found her, she was stranded. She came into us with boat trauma to her shell as well as to her head," Koperski said. "Her survival in the wild is very unlikely."

Boat injuries have contributed to sea turtles being placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List, along with a loss of nesting areas because of commercial development.

Other threats include turtles getting caught in fishing lines, being struck by trash in the ocean and being deterred from nesting sites by bright lighting from beach developments.

Koperski said she wishes Ziva's plight was a rarity. But the statistics show otherwise. In Florida, from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, Koperski's agency took in 12,000 injured sea turtles. While some suffered from disease, many others were stranded like Ziva after a boating injury or lost a flipper by getting tangled in fishing line.

Koperski said that during that July-to-June period, the agency had to euthanize 94 sea turtles.

Koperski said Sea Life giving Ziva a permanent home in Arizona is a cause for celebration. Sea Life is considering adding more sea turtles to Arizona's aquarium if Ziva does well.

"We hope that she is going to live out a long, fantastic life out there in Arizona," she said. "We're excited about folks in Arizona getting to learn about Ziva and sea turtles in general, because you don't have to live by the beach to make a difference."

Hupp and Dirk Westfall, Sea Life's curator, were so concerned about keeping Ziva safe during her precarious trip from Georgia that they arranged to fly in the FedEx cargo plane's jump seats. Before the trip, they slathered Ziva with Vaseline to keep her shell moist, and along the way they sprayed her with water and put drops in her eyes.

"We were like nervous parents," Westfall said.

Ziva's crate wasn't opened until she was safely inside the aquarium. When she was released into a med-pool with Sea Life aquarist Chelsea Wake, Ziva dipped her head under water and swam in lopsided circles.

Westfall said Ziva will live in the med-pool for the first few weeks so she can get used to her surroundings and learn to associate the pool with feeding time. Westfall expects to release Ziva into the aquarium's 161,000 gallon tank in March.

"She'll be an ambassador for her species," he said. "We want people to know that whether it's conservation or recycling, there are so many ways to make a difference for the creatures living in our ocean."

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