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Chula Vista Wildlife Refuge Builds Custom Wetsuit To Help Sea Turtle Regain Its Buoyancy

Sapphire, a 200 pound loggerhead turtle, swims in her pool at the Living Coas...

Photo by John Carroll

Above: Sapphire, a 200 pound loggerhead turtle, swims in her pool at the Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista on Feb. 23, 2021.

The Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista is home to all sorts of birds and marine life. Some have been injured in the wild and are brought to the Center for treatment and recovery. Others can’t return to the wild and live their lives out at the Center.

Such is the case with Sapphire, a 200-pound loggerhead turtle. She was taking a nap, head down, tail up Tuesday morning.

Listen to this story by John Carroll.

That was until animal care specialist Aiyana Reissman showed up with some fresh smelt and squid. It’s a diet Sapphire has become accustomed to since coming here to live in 2014.

She came from Florida where she’d been hit twice by boats. She lost sight in one eye and one of her flippers is partially paralyzed. But she recovered and had been doing fine.

In April 2020, Center staff started noticing that Sapphire was having buoyancy problems, not just in the way you might think — coming up for air — but also being able to stay down in the water where she feeds and where she sleeps.

“She wasn’t comfortable and that’s where we saw the decrease in appetite and overall quality of life," Reissman said. "And we wanted to make sure she was comfortable and exhibiting those natural behaviors.”

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Reported by John Carroll , Video by Roland Lizarondo

The challenge was to help Sapphire regain control of her buoyancy. She already had weights glued onto her shell. But the parts of her body, that provide the buoyancy, change over time, so the weights can only do so much.

Reissman had an idea: a wetsuit where weights could be added as needed. She knew some people at the O’Neill wetsuit company in Santa Cruz who were happy to help make a custom wetsuit, allowing for much more targeted therapy.

“The most important parts are these little pockets where we can actually put the weights in," Reissman said. "It’s a nice snug fit just like it would be for us to stay close to her body and kind of simulate what it would be like if we were to glue weights closer. And that helps us down the line to figure out where we may need to put a permanent weight,”

During her wetsuit therapy, Sapphire was moved into a shallow pool to make it easier to get her in and out of the wetsuit.

Things have gone so well that she has returned to the big pool where she’s now back to swimming, eating and of course napping; content, one hopes, with her life at the Living Coast Discovery Center.

The center is keeping the wetsuit in case she needs more therapy down the line.

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John Carroll
General Assignment Reporter & Anchor

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI'm a general assignment reporter and Saturday morning radio anchor for KPBS. I love coming up with story ideas that aren't being covered elsewhere, but I'm also ready to cover the breaking news of the day. In addition, I bring you the local news headlines on Saturday mornings during NPR's Weekend Edition.

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