Sapphire the loggerhead sea turtle in her custom wetsuit. Image from video

A loggerhead sea turtle at the Living Coast Discovery Center that suffers from buoyancy problems is now eating and swimming normally thanks to a special weighted wetsuit.

Sapphire has been a popular resident of the Chula Vista center’s aquarium since she arrived from Florida in 2014. A boat strike had cracked her shell and left her blind in one eye, making it impossible to return to the wild.

The oddly buoyant turtle has drawn a lot of attention over the years, as she is often seen in an unusual “turtle handstand” position. To help correct her buoyancy, marine weights have been glued to her shell, allowing her to dive normally.

However, starting in April 2020, her buoyancy issues worsened, causing sleeping and eating problems. The Living Coast team made plans to add more weights to her shell, but knew this would not solve the problem because the turtle is still growing. 

“We had to decide where to place the weights, as one day her buoyancy leans to the right, the next day, it’s more to the left. Other times, it’s or a little forward or backwards,” said Aiyana Reisman, an animal care specialist. “There was no easy, one-spot-fits-all option. We needed an approach that would allow for flexibility.”

The solution, developed with the help of veterinarian Todd Cecil at Western Aquatic Animal Veterinary Services, was wetsuit that would allow weights to be added or removed as needed. A prototype was developed and tested on a small red-eared slider turtle. Then O’Neill Wetsuits in Santa Cruz helped by creating a custom suit for Sapphire. 

With the wetsuit in place, the Living Coast team tried various weight locations for months, determining how much weight would go where and making adjustments. The team monitored the turtle’s activity level and calorie intake.

Finally, in December, the last weight was removed along with the wetsuit and Sapphire was able to float horizontally and swim straight.  

“It has been an incredible undertaking, and we are so happy to report that Sapphire’s eating and swimming have significantly improved,” said Executive Director Ben Vallejos. 

As Sapphire continues to grow, her buoyancy will change and she will most likely need to undergo additional “wetsuit therapy” to help straighten her out again.

The nonprofit Living Coast Discovery Center is an educational zoo and aquarium located within the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Sweetwater Marsh.

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