Balloons, grocery bags, clear plastic, tarp material… these items aren’t particularly appetizing, but for a juvenile green sea turtle named Zazu, their allure was irresistible.

Green sea turtles (commonly referred to as greens) are one of seven sea turtle species found worldwide. Greens have a widespread range and can be found nesting on the shorelines of over 80 countries. Their name derives from the greenish hue of their carapace and skin. They start their lives as omnivores, feasting on a variety of shellfish and small marine life. Since the South Carolina coast is mainly sandy bottom habitat, greens have plenty to feed off of. However, they become herbivorous as they reach maturity, so greens will migrate to warmer climates where sea grass and algae (their dietary preferences as adults) are more prevalent.

Unbeknownst to sea turtles, marine debris can resemble naturally-occurring food sources and cause issues if ingested. Zazu, named after the diplomatic red-billed hornbill from Disney’s The Lion King, was underweight at 4.3 lbs when he was found floating in Capers Inlet, SC by a local boat captain. Upon initial observation, lethargy and a missing but healed left eye were the only noticeable ailments. However, the captain knew there could be more so Zazu was transported to the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Care Center™.

If a sea turtle is facing life-threatening impacts or injuries along the South Carolina coast, they are admitted to the Sea Turtle Care Center. This state-of-the-art facility is outfitted with private exam rooms, a hospital-grade CT scanner, fully-stocked surgical suite, therapeutic exercise tank, and its own intricate life support system. A dedicated team of staff and volunteers administer round-the-clock care to all sea turtle patients, where occupancy can occasionally reach 25 or more.

Upon Zazu’s arrival, staff quickly realized this juvenile green could have underlying issues causing his lethargic state. His body temperature was low at 60°F, and a radiograph revealed the onset of pneumonia in one of his lungs – signs of cold-stunning. Since sea turtles are cold-blooded, they rely on the temperature of the surrounding waters to warm them. When their internal temperature drops due to colder water, so does their heart rate and circulation, and they can become lethargic.

After stabilizing him through a series of medications and TLC, Zazu settled in for his stay at the Care Center. It wasn’t long before Zazu began to defecate marine debris, most notably balloon material and grocery bag remnants. Sadly, it’s becoming more and more common that sea turtles encounter this man-made marauder in their natural habitat. Zazu is the 23rd patient to be admitted to the Care Center with plastic-related injuries.

Currently, approximately 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic pollution are floating in oceanic environments across the world. This number accounts for both surface-level pieces as well as degrading or sinking particles, but not necessarily other facets of man-made debris like litter and discarded fishing gear. Though a large majority of plastic pollution is concentrated in five areas throughout three oceans, collectively known as the five gyres, its threat still looms for a myriad of marine life. With plastic spanning this vast of an area, it comes as no surprise that sea life finds itself in the midst of its negative impacts.

So, how does Zazu’s story end? Thankfully, he is one of the 280 success stories (and counting) for the South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Care Center. After five months of rehabilitative care and countless weight checks, observations, blood draws, medications and dietary treats, Zazu was released in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

Sea turtles like Zazu are given a second chance at survival at the Sea Turtle Care Center, just one of the Aquarium’s conservation priorities. As a nonprofit organization, the Aquarium appreciates the support of community allies, individuals and corporate partners like Charles River Labs to further our work in conserving and protecting water, wildlife and wild places. To learn more about sea turtle conservation efforts at the Aquarium and how you can help, visit scaquarium.org/stcc.

We hope you enjoyed this guest blog from the South Carolina Aquarium. Tomorrow Eureka will feature a post from Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, CT on the impact of plastic pollution on horseshoe crabs.