Rescued Keys Sea Turtle Heading to New Home in San Diego

A loggerhead sea turtle named Sapphire is getting ready for a cross-country trip on Thursday to a permanent home in Southern California after convalescing for more than a year at the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital.

Final preparations were made Wednesday for the 2,500-mile journey to The Living Coast Discovery Center near San Diego.

The 129-pound subadult female cannot be released in the wild because she can't submerge without the two pounds of weights that are attached with epoxy to its carapace. As the turtle continues to grow, the weights will eventually fall off and new weights will need to be installed.

"She has 'bubble butt' syndrome," said Turtle Hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach. "She is unable to evacuate air from her lungs due to a spinal cord injury, so unfortunately for Sapphire, she is nonreleasable."

The turtle was first rescued in February 2010 with a wound that came from a boat strike, Zirkelbach said. She was treated for 45 days at the hospital and freed after appearing to be fully recovered. But in May 2013, she was found floating again off the Keys.

Soon after, state wildlife officials deemed the turtle needed a "forever home."

Zirkelbach said Sapphire is the only one of the 1,400 turtles the hospital has treated and freed in the past 28 years to return.

To monitor the turtle's health and comfort, Zirkelbach and hospital founder Richie Moretti will accompanying the turtle on FedEx flights from Miami to Memphis and then on to San Diego.

"Although 'Sapphire' can't be returned to the wild, the good news is that she will be able to act as an ambassador for her species, the endangered sea turtles," Zirkelbach said.

Sapphire, who is about 20 years old, will likely live another 80 years at her new home in San Diego.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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