After COVID closure, SC Aquarium needs to raise $1.6 million

CHARLESTON, S.C.

Ed and Queen don’t know about the pandemic.

They don’t know that a deadly virus forced the South Carolina Aquarium to shut its doors on March 24. They didn’t see the scaled back reopening, or the two rounds of layoffs that cut staff by 25%.

Inside their tanks at the aquarium’s Sea Turtle Care Center, the glass is one-sided, which means Ed and Queen cannot see out.

Cannot see the exhibit that tells the story of their largely endangered species.

Cannot see the masked visitors who stop to watch them swim.

Cannot see the mesmerized little girl who, on a recent Tuesday morning, moved her arms through the air, pretending to swim just like Queen does with her powerful front flippers.

These creatures also cannot see the ways COVID-19 has altered the aquarium, including an unexpected financial crisis that could jeopardize the very place that helps South Carolina’s sick and injured sea turtles.

Sea turtles like Ed and Queen.

“Without financial stability, we very well might find ourselves unable to answer those rescue calls, leaving sick and injured sea turtles to their own demise,” the aquarium’s president and CEO, Kevin Mills, said last month.

Svetlana Varney and her daughter, Charlotte MirIabelle Varney react to tseeing Queen, a Sea Turtle, at the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston. Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com

Each year, about 80% of the aquarium’s income comes from its general admission tickets and membership sales. This year was different.

Those once-dependable revenue sources evaporated when the pandemic forced the aquarium to shut its doors for 68 days, a closure that came at the worst possible time.

Right at the start of the aquarium’s busy season, which spans from spring break through the end of summer, the aquarium saw no visitors — no visitors during the critical weeks when the aquarium typically makes the majority of its revenue for the entire year.

As of August, the aquarium was down nearly $4 million. Aquarium leaders are now projecting a $5 million loss in revenue by the end of the year.

And with or without visitors, the more than 5,000 animals inside the aquarium, like Ed and Queen, still needed care.

Since early March, the aquarium has had 20 injured or sick sea turtles admitted to its Sea Turtle Care Center. Queen was one of them. She was found stranded on Kiawah Island in June.

Ed, meanwhile, has been receiving rehabilitative care at the Sea Turtle Care Center for more than a year.

The cash shortfall has put the future of the Sea Turtle Care Center in jeopardy, even as the aquarium secured millions in federal relief and turned to its historical donors for financial help.

Now, the downtown Charleston attraction has turned to the public. It’s run out of options.

The aquarium needs to raise $1.6 million by the end of next March to fund its education programming and its Sea Turtle Care Center, which has rehabilitated and released more than 300 turtles in the past 20 years.

Without it, Mills said, “We risk losing the heart and soul of who we are.”

Their deadline is less than six months away. Ed and Queen may need more time.

The worst possible time

Juan-Pablo Mancia, the aquarium’s chief financial officer, has been looking at the institution’s cash projections every week. He said it’s unlike anything he has ever seen.

The aquarium on Concord Street has survived its share of natural disasters in its 20 years, but it never shut its doors for more than five days.

Unlike COVID-19, storms can be tracked and have a predictable season. Mancia said each year the aquarium plans for hurricane-related disruptions in its September and October budgets. The novel coronavirus, however, was a fast-moving, invisible force.

“This is something that was really, really hard to predict,” Mancia said. “We were closed for about two months.”

Even the reopening process had its share of unknowns. Mancia said the aquarium had to open its doors in May at a reduced 20% capacity for the safety of its guests and its staff after Gov. Henry McMaster lifted an emergency order. To date, this waterfront attraction has seen about one-third of the attendance it normally does by this point in the year.

The aquarium also applied for relief through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program and was approved for a loan totaling between $1 million and $2 million.

It didn’t last long.

“We’ve gone through it,” Mancia said of the nonprofit corporation. “We received the money in late April and went through it pretty quickly, in about 2 ½ months or so.”

The South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com

Other nonprofits in South Carolina are experiencing similar economic downturns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some 63% of South Carolina nonprofits say they can survive for six months or fewer without additional funding, according to a recent survey from Together SC, a statewide organization for nonprofits, and the College of Charleston’s Riley Center for Livable Communities.

About 5% of the survey’s respondents said they are out of funds now, and 29% predicted they can only operate for three more months without additional funds.

Katy Smith, who leads the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy, said nonprofits in the state face a unique struggle as they try to find additional money to help survive the financial crisis caused by COVID-19.

“Generally, South Carolina has lower philanthropic assets per capita,” Smith said. “South Carolina, while we are generous as residents and we do give generously, we are just a lower wealth state. And we also have the unfortunate situation of not having a lot of foundations.”

So far, the work at the Sea Turtle Care Center has not been affected by the lack of income, but already decisions have been made to manage both its costs and its capacity.

The aquarium decided it would only take in turtles that were rescued in-state.

In the past, the aquarium admitted out-of-state sea turtles when their home aquariums were too full to care for them. For example, in the winter, the South Carolina aquarium often helped rehabilitate so-called “cold stunned” sea turtles stranded in chilly Northeastern waters.

This year, it can’t.

Cait Crosby, a sea turtle biologist at the South Carolina Aquarium, gets choked up when she talks about the unknown future facing the Sea Turtle Care Center.

“Being the only rehabilitation center for sea turtles in the state of South Carolina is what makes us special. It’s part of what makes us unique,” Crosby said.

“Sea turtles are a state reptile in South Carolina. They’re a big piece of the Lowcountry and a big part of the culture here. To not have a place for them to go,” Crosby stops herself. She inhales sharply before continuing, “The thought of that is just really sad. So much work has gone into getting us to this point. It would just be awful if we had to stop.”

Without this place, Ed and Queen may not have survived.

Ed and Queen’s second chance

Ed is a juvenile Kemp’s ridley, the smallest sea turtle species and the world’s most endangered. He gets stressed easily and has been rehabilitating at the Sea Turtle Care Center since August 2019.

“He’s really been through the gamut of issues,” Crosby said.

Crosby remembers the day Ed arrived.

Ed, a Kemp’s Ridley turtle, came into the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston tangled in fishing line. Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com

Ed, a sea turtle no bigger than the size of a dinner plate, was hooked by a fisherman on the Cherry Grove Pier in Myrtle Beach. When the fisherman and a group of women on the pier pulled him up, they noticed braided fishing line was wrapped around his left front flipper.

But even more worrying, the line was also in his mouth and had traveled all the way through his body. Some of the line was sticking out of his rear.

Fishing line is especially dangerous for sea turtles, Crosby said, because it doesn’t show up on X-rays. The material can cut through internal organs, including the esophagus, stomach and intestines.

The morning after Ed was admitted, he was in surgery for several hours. More than 16 inches of fishing line were removed from his 10-pound body.

When Ed stopped eating in late November, he underwent a second surgery to make sure there was no additional fishing line. To date, Ed has had five surgeries.

The most lethal predator sea turtles encounter are humans and our unintended impact on their world, like boat strikes, fishing lines and plastics in the ocean that sea turtles mistake for jelly fish.

Crosby said the Sea Turtle Care Center helps bridge the divide between humans and these creatures.

“People are just instantly grabbed by them. I don’t know if it‘s the way they’re swimming or the way they look, but they are one of the living dinosaurs on our planet right now. And I think it connects people to something bigger,” Crosby said. “It’s one thing to understand the impacts that humans are having on sea turtles and other wildlife, but it’s another thing to walk into a room and to see an animal that has eaten plastic or been hit by a boat, or suffered an entanglement injury.”

Queen, a mature Loggerhead sea turtle is being cared for at the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston. She is in need of cataract surgery so she can see well enough to forage for food in the wild. Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com

Queen, an adult loggerhead sea turtle with cataracts, has trouble seeing her own food, whether it’s sleek silver capelin fish tossed into her tank or bigger chunks of mackerel that float down to the bottom in large cubes.

She was found stranded and covered in pluff mud on Kiawah Island this summer. She had coral growing on her shell. Queen also had debilitated turtle syndrome, which means she was lethargic and not eating — a dangerous combination.

“If she was to have stranded and not had a center to go to, she wouldn’t survive in the wild without cataract removal surgery,” Crosby said.

Queen’s diet consists of animals like blue crabs, which are fast-moving creatures. With her bilateral cataracts, she couldn’t be able to see them, much less catch them, in the murky waters.

But the sea turtle biologists here say both Queen and Ed are getting better. This is not the ocean that these creatures know, but the Sea Turtle Care Center is only meant to be a home for now.

“Our goal is to release them, so we never think of them as staying here forever,” Crosby said. “Sometimes they are here for three months, and sometimes they are here for two years. It just depends.”

But the March fundraising deadline is set.

Like the very sea turtles in its care, the Sea Turtle Care Center’s future now depends on the kindness of humans.

Imagining a world without

Already, contingency plans are being developed in case the aquarium can’t find the funds it needs to support the work of its Sea Turtle Care Center.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which responds to calls about sick and injured sea turtles before taking them to the aquarium, said it is exploring what sea turtle rescue work could look like in a world without the Sea Turtle Care Center.

Michelle Pate, the biologist who heads up DNR’s sea turtle program, said Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach might be able to take them in, but that’s assuming that facility has the capacity and resources to do so.

If that didn’t work, there’s another plan: Work with private vets, utilize housing tanks on state and federal lands, or take the turtles out of state.

Today, Crosby can’t think about that. She has to get into the tank with Queen, and she needs to get Queen out.

The staff at the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston weigh Queen, a sea turtle who is being rehabilitated to return to the wild. Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com

A team of nine people help Crosby hoist Queen onto a padded examining table. On the count of three, they lift her out of the tank and onto the table. They count to three again and move Queen once more to get her all the way onto the table.

It’s not easy. Queen weighs more than 150 pounds.

Over the course of 20 minutes, the team conducts a physical exam, checking Queen’s weight and measurements. They tap her shell and her head to distract her from what seems to her a strange poking and prodding of her body.

Then, they look into her eyes.

After conducting their exam, Crosby and others are hopeful that Queen will be able to have the cataract removal surgery she needs.

The team at the aquarium explains they will do the surgery to give Queen her best shot at a safe and healthy return to the ocean, as long as her blood work continues to improve — and as long as they are able to continue doing this work.

Caitlin Byrd covers the Charleston region as an enterprise reporter for The State. She grew up in eastern North Carolina and she graduated from UNC Asheville in 2011. Since moving to Charleston in 2016, Byrd has broken national news, told powerful stories and documented the nuances of both a presidential primary and a high-stakes congressional race. She most recently covered politics at The Post and Courier. To date, Byrd has won more than 17 awards for her journalism.


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