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'Ride-out team' cares for aquarium animals during Florence

CNN logo CNN 9/14/2018 By Debra Goldschmidt, CNN

a turtle swimming under water

© Debra Goldschmidt/CNN

Inside the closed South Carolina Aquarium Thursday, volunteers were hard at work taking steps to ensure the animals that call the aquarium home will be safe from Hurricane Florence.

"We are here until the storm ends, and the reason we're here is to take care of all the animals in the aquarium," said Willow Melamet, sea turtle care manager at the aquarium. She is one of 12 volunteer staff members on the team that will ride out the storm at the aquarium.

The animals there include fish, sharks, eel, otters, alligators and crabs, to name a few. Of particular concern are the 15 patients in the sea turtle hospital. They include loggerhead, green and Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, which are all endangered species, along with the other four species of sea turtles. The endangered animals are there because they've been rescued. The hospital staff will nurse them back to health and then release them. 

Since the aquarium and the hospital opened in 2000, 260 turtles have been released after being cared for here. 

Gallery by photo services

When turtles arrive at the aquarium, they are kept in the intensive care unit in the basement of the building, which is on the Charleston Harbor, Courtenay Lewandowski, senior director of strategy and advancement, explained. They are injured or sometimes stranded from being hit by a boat or getting stuck in a fishing line, for example, when they are found.

She said that once they are stable they are moved for rehabilitation to a living exhibit where the 76,000 visitors who come to the aquarium each year can see how they are cared for and learn how they are nursed back to health. 

This week, the rehab center is home to the intensive care unit sea turtles, too. They've been moved up to the first floor to stay out of harm's way, with the potential for flooding from the storm. Flood water can knock out power and life support for the turtles, Malamet said, noting it could be devastating to the hospital since the holding tanks use electricity for water filters and oxygen. 

It's so critical that the back-up systems have back-ups, she said. In addition to generators to back up the main generator, there are systems to keep tanks cool and systems for oxygen and air.

Malamet helped move the sickest patients in the turtle hospital, including Dobby, who was stranded in Myrtle Beach State Park after being hooked by a fishing line in July.

The ride-out team worked to isolate the ICU from the rest of the aquarium by sealing off doors, putting sandbags in place and filling holding tanks with water in case they need it.

It's a need they are familiar with. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the area flooded and lost power for a few hours. The same thing happened again during Hurricane Irma last year. By refining their preparation plans each year, the staff said they keep getting better at it. "We're storm ready," Melamet said. 

The remaining team is also responsible for routine care of the animals throughout the aquarium, including physicals, vaccinations and medications.

Once the effects of the storm hit the area, they will be checking the building for damage from wind or flooding, too.

"The ability to have high winds, storm surge and all that could be detrimental to our sea turtle hospital," Melamet said.

It's the first time Melamet will be riding out a storm at the aquarium, she said, and she's excited.

After the storm passes and authorities determine it's safe to travel around Charleston, the ride-out team will be relieved by a recovery team, which will assess the building, clean up if needed, then work to move the sickest sea turtles back to the ICU -- all steps toward getting the building ready to open to the public again.

In the meantime though, they wait. "We've been keeping an eye on the storm. It's been taking a little longer than anticipated to get to us," Melamet said.

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