The STAR Center: Turtle Whisperers of the Outer Banks

Wickershams was under the weather. 

Widespread tissue damage. A little weak. Not eating. Listless. A shell of himself, you might say…

Luckily, this 8.8-pound green sea turtle found himself right where he needed to be this spring – at the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. There, caretakers tended to his wounds and put him on antibiotics. Within a few days, his appetite had returned and Wickershams was a bit livelier as he swam comfortably in a full tank of water. 

Wickershams regains his strength under the care of the STAR Center staff. Photo Jane Fiedler.

“We don’t really know how long he was debilitated before he got here,” says STAR Center Manager Amber White as she tweezed off dead tissue and treated his damaged shell. “He still rests quite a bit. But it’s OK that he’s resting. Usually, we do the same thing when we’re sick.”

The STAR Center is one of the gems of the aquarium, located along the Croatan Sound on Airport Road. It’s a combination sea turtle hospital, rehab facility and vital public outreach resource. 

And while sea turtles date back 100 million years and have outlived the dinosaurs, they are now on threatened and endangered lists. But ever since the STAR Center opened in June 2014, hundreds of these cherished reptiles in need of help have cycled through its doors.

Tending to Turtles

Amber, who became the STAR Center manager in March, worked at the National Aquarium in Baltimore for eight and a half years, the last four and a half in sea turtle rescue and rehab. The Baltimore aquarium is a sprawling facility at the city’s Inner Harbor, but its work with sea turtles is done behind closed doors. The opportunity to interact with the public and allow them to experience sea turtles up close immediately attracted Amber to the job opening at the STAR Center. 

“I’m incredibly lucky,” she says. “I pretty much landed my dream job.”

The 3,000-square-foot, $650,000 STAR Center she manages succeeds as a collaborative effort among state agencies, the North Carolina Aquarium Society and a small army of donors and volunteers. Through their efforts, visitors can view sea turtles in one of the exhibit’s eight tanks either directly or on video screens via overhead cameras. 

STAR Center volunteers, George and Chris Pruitt care for the turtles as they answer visitors’ questions. Photo Jane Fiedler.

Guests can also see turtles being fed and receiving care in the treatment room as staff and volunteers answer their questions as they work. Nearby, a nationally recognized exhibit allows visitors to practice what they’ve learned as they simulate sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation. 

The public area is often the final phase of rehabilitation for sea turtles before they are released. Two additional private rehab areas at the center include a total of 21 tanks to accommodate up to 30 turtles.

“I love being able to talk to people every day about what I do,” says Amber. “They’re not just reading articles or watching videos about preservation, they’re seeing it happen when they come here. I think it’s that one-on-one interaction that creates those lasting impacts.”

The STAR Center is, in part, an extension of work that has been done privately for years, explains Aquarium Director Maylon White, who took over in 2010 and not only inherited a dedicated staff, but also discovered a passionate local volunteer group – the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST). 

When planning the STAR Center, White says the goal was to design a facility that allows visitors to experience these reptiles and the efforts that go into caring for them, all while keeping the safety and needs of the sea turtles at the forefront. 

“The challenge is that our aquarium, like so many aquariums and zoos across the country, does a lot of work to help animals in the wild but most of it is behind-the-scenes, and so it’s not seen. If it’s not seen, it’s not understood.” 

The Plight of the Sea Turtle

All seven sea turtle species around the globe are listed as either threatened or endangered, and five of those travel in North Carolina waters – loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys, hawksbills, leatherbacks and green turtles. Loggerheads, greens and Kemp’s ridleys are the most common along the Outer Banks.

Nests and hatchlings are vulnerable to predators and storms, while juvenile and mature turtles are subject to boat strikes, fishhook ingestion and injuries from dredging equipment and fishing net entanglements, which are more common in the summer. In the winter, they are susceptible to what the turtle community calls “cold stunning,” which occurs when a decrease in water temperature leaves them unable to function normally. They grow weak and, carried by currents and tides, are often washed ashore. 

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STAR Center Manager Amber White keeps the tanks clean for the sea turtles. Photo Jane Fiedler.

Rescuers at the STAR Center treat turtles that have suffered from all these conditions. During the harsh winter of 2015-16, the aquarium had more than 300 cold-stunned turtles on site at one point. By the end of January, almost 2,000 sea turtles had washed up along the North Carolina coast, 600 of which were treated at the Roanoke Island facility.

In just three years, the STAR Center has quickly become one of the aquarium’s most popular and recognized exhibits. The center was the recipient of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) 2015 Exhibit Award in the category of Top Honors of institutions under a $5 million annual operating budget. 

The center’s annual operating budget is a modest $50,000, not counting salaries, according to aquarium officials. White said other aquariums have inquired about the center as they consider similar ventures.

Volunteers: The Backbone of STAR

When Amber, who is not related to Director White, came on board as STAR Center manager this spring, she found herself among a vital volunteer base. NEST has approximately 800 members, according to NEST President Dennis Pohl. Of those, 50 to 60 are active members who patrol beaches, transport distressed turtles, monitor nests and log hundreds of hours at the aquarium. 

STAR Center Technician Madeleine VanMiddlesworth checks on one of the facility’s patients. Photo Jane Fiedler.

On any given day, teams of two or three NEST members work in shifts at the STAR Center. They clean tanks, feed turtles, chart progress, check water temperature and salinity, mop floors and interact with the public.

“None of this would be possible without volunteers,” says Amber. “They are the core of what we do. When it is busy season and we have new cases coming in, we’re able to focus on those new cases and get those turtles acclimated as soon as we can. We literally could not do this without them.”

On one spring morning, seasoned volunteer Chris Pruitt cut up capelin on a metal table in the food prep area as her husband, George, talked to visitors through a headset microphone. The two have been NEST volunteers for the past 10 years.

“Everybody loves turtles,” says Chris, “and they’re a really good way to educate the public about how important it is to keep water clean — whether it’s the creek in your backyard or the ocean — because it all ends up in the same place. We use the turtles as a vehicle for environmental education, which is great.”

From Injury to Freedom

STAR Center Manager Amber White tends to a green turtle named Blogg. Photo Dave Fairbank.

In mid-May, the center’s patient population was down a bit following the release of 17 turtles near the state aquarium in Kure Beach. Among those still rehabilitating were Lorax, a Kemp’s ridley; Foo Foo the Snoo, a six-pound green turtle; and Willy Waterloo, a 58-pound loggerhead (the staff went through a Dr. Seuss phase of naming turtles). 

And, of course, there was Wickershams.

It didn’t take Wickershams long to show signs of progress in his nearly three weeks on site. Possibly suffering from infection, he was brought in with extensive barnacle damage to his shell, as the arthropods burrowed beneath the shell and created soft spots and dead tissue. But Wickershams’s shell was regenerating quickly. Healthy tissue replaced diseased areas. His appetite and weight were up.

He was also beginning to show a little personality.

“It’s remarkable how resilient they are, and how good they are at healing,” says Amber.

There’s no doubt the STAR Center has made hundreds of turtles happy and healthy, and the aquarium director says the response from the public has been tremendous. “I can’t say that I’ve measured it in a precise manner, but when you get all the comments that we’ve had, you’re pretty comfortable that you’re on the right track.”

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Once the turtles are rehabbed, STAR Center staff members release them back into the ocean. These releases always draw large crowds along the Outer Banks. Photo Jane Fielder.

And on this particular visit in mid-May, Amber was overseeing a center full of turtles on the right track, all progressing and on target for release in the coming months. 

She had participated in a release the day before, as a couple of charter fishing boats out of Cape Hatteras transported nine turtles out to the Gulf Stream. The 12-hour venture was tiring but exhilarating, and she was none the worse for wear the next day as she met with visitors and tended to her patients.

“That’s the best thing about rehab,” she said. “You see them at their worst and you release them at their best.” ♦

Dave Fairbank

Dave Fairbank is a freelance writer living in Kill Devil Hills. Dave was a sports writer for 30 years at the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press prior to relocating the the Outer Banks.

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