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Sea turtle with buoyancy problems to get special prosthetic shell at National Aquarium

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Posted at 1:01 PM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 15:30:36-05

BALTIMORE, Md. — Kai the green sea turtle swims leisurely around her tank at the National Aquarium's Animal Care and Rescue Center, but before she can take her laps, she needs her special gear.

"Based on the radiographs, we can see where the gas is and start to figure out where to put those weights, how much weight to put on, also just strictly observations," said Ashleigh Clews, Curator for the Animal Care and Rescue Center.

Kai needs her special weights because of a boating accident two years ago off the coast of South Carolina that caused her buoyancy problems.

"The boat severed a nerve that aids in digestion, so because of that, she can’t move food and gas normally through her system," said Clews. "She was never going to be able to regain normal buoyancy on her own."

Kai arrived at the National Aquarium last fall for long-term care. Every day and throughout the day, Kai's caretakers adjust the weights depending on how she's leaning and where the gas is in her body. It requires constant handling of the sea turtle and the team felt there had to be a more permanent solution to the problem.

Enter Adam Nelson, habitat production lead at the National Aquarium.

"Its been a really unique project to work on. Normally, I focus on building the exhibits and habitats in the aquarium itself," Nelson said.

Nelson's new challenge is to use the materials he would normally use to build the habitats and create a prosthetic shell for Kai.

"We’re trying to take an approach of almost like a blanket that creates a uniformed weight across the back of the shell. Hopefully, that will alleviate issues of needing to place it at different spots based off of where the gas is in the turtle," he said.

Nelson doesn't have any sea turtle prosthetic shell blueprints to work off of, so this process will be a lot of trial and error. He will also have to create new and bigger prosthetics as Kai grows. While he works on a one-of-a-kind piece for Kai, just down the hall at the rescue center, she is swimming, eating, training and adjusting to her new life in Charm City.

"It’s great to walk by and see her everyday. I’m excited to hopefully make this work and have it be a functional thing," Nelson said.

Kai is considered non-releasable, so she will be spending the rest of her life at the National Aquarium. Clews said she'll hopefully fill the void left behind by Calypso, a beloved sea turtle that passed away last year.

"It’s a huge void to fill, [Calypso] did so much good for her species and the conservation efforts around sea turtles in general, so we hope Kai will do the same. We know she will," said Clews.

This story was originally published by Megan Knight at WMAR.