The Israel Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center has treated dozens of green and brown sea turtles over the past few years, but no case has been graver than Frankie's, a female loggerhead sea turtle found with a crushed skull after it was hit by a passing boat.
Frankie's near 3.5-year rehabilitation has been the longest and most complex to ever be attempted in Israel.
In 2009, the center received a call from a fisherman, who detected an injured sea turtle in the water.
"He said it was bleeding heavily from a head wound but he couldn't reach it," Yaniv Levy, the center's manager, recalled. I called a police boat and together with Israel Nature and National Parks Service
inspector Eyal Cohen, they were able to extract it and bring it to the Rescue Center."
Turtle emergencies are not new to the center, whose team treats turtles sporting a wide range of injuries boat propellers and fishing nets and hooks, but Frankie's injuries were especially grave.
"Unlike most turtles, which drift ashore and suffer sometimes for months before they reach us, this was a fresh, critical injury that required emergency surgery," Levy recalls.
"Its skull was crushed from the force of the injury, but we had every hope it would survive. Sea turtles have very high endurance compared to other animals."
X-ray image of Frankie's skull (Photo: INPS)
Frankie was rushed to Veterinarian Tzahi Eisenberg's clinic in Rehovot, who has operated on dozens of sea turtles.
"Despite the fracture, which ran along the skull, its brain luckily remained intact," he said. "It suffered from a broken beak, its eye was dislocated because of a broken eye socket and we also had to remove part of its salt gland," he said.
Sea turtles excrete the salts accumulated in their bodies through their tear ducts.
Eisenberg was eventually able to set Frankie's skull, and by using special wires and screws, the turtle's head was literally put back together.
For the next four months, the turtle was in the Center's ICU where caretakers used a special feeding tube to nourish it. Slowly, in its own private pool, Frankie began healing and eventually began eating on its own.
Frankie's real challenge was trying to swim, i.e. – to surface in the shallow pool and breath – a near mission impossible for a turtle with a broken jaw.
"The air would escape from the side of its mount and it had to strain to lift its head above water," Levy said. "It's somehow tolerable in shallow water, but in deep water, the breathing was laborious and it made it lose its balance and flip over. The panic would nearly make it drown."
A year into the rehabilitation process, Frankie gradually became accustomed to deeper waters, while at night, the pool was made shallow again, to prevent the turtle from drowning.
Back in the water (Photo: INPS)
One night, however, the water pumps experienced a serious malfunction and flooded the pool. When the center's caretakers arrived in the morning, they found Frankie at the bottom of it pool, lifeless.
"She must have come up for air, panicked and flipped over, inhaling water and drowning," Levy said. "But I decided I wasn't giving up. We extracted the water from its lungs, gave it air and injected it with adrenalin and other breathing support materials.
"It was one of the longest resuscitations I ever performed on a turtle, but after eight hours it was back."
After a few more weeks in the ICU, Frankie was again gradually introduced to deeper waters, under close supervision.
Levy admits that no one thought the rehabilitation process would stretch into years, but after the turtle exhibited steady improvement, the big moment had arrived and Frankie was reintroduced into the ocean.
In other cases, the center's team accompanies the turtles to the water's edge, following them only a few meters into the water to ensure they are swimming properly. Frankie, however, was closely watched.
"It was in complete shock for the first 30 minutes, and only then did it begin to slowly dive to the bottom," Levy said.
"We could tell it had no idea where it was and it swam back to shore. We helped it back into the water and it took about an hour until it was oriented again, and it began swimming west.
"After we saw it didn't panic at all, that there was no danger of it flipping over and it was breathing well, we left it alone and watched it swim away," he noted with satisfaction. "We have no doubt Frankie will do well in the ocean."