We had arrived at the uninhabited island of Isla Espiritu, a small island in the Las Perlas archipelago off the coast of Panamá. With ideas of snorkelling, hiking and just general exploring we rowed the short distance to the beach from our sail boat, Chuffed.
We tied up the dingy and I noticed a tangled mess of fishing net, line and rope; but I kept walking. These man-mad tangles of trash were everywhere on these islands and you begin to lose hope you can ever rid the beaches of them. But I stopped when my husband said he had found a turtle! A juvenile hawksbill turtle, completely entangled with in this mess. Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered, and this little one still had so much fight, so we knew we had to try save her.
Lesson 1: keep FIGHTING, rescue may be just around the corner 🐢
We cut line from around her neck, flippers and body, assessing the horrific damage it had done as we went. Her back right flipper had been cut open and both bones in her lower leg had been snapped clean in half... her front flipper had deep cuts all the way to the bone and her neck had scars from being strangulated for so many days, or potentially even weeks. We couldn't help but wonder- what were the chances a veterinarian and a marine biologist would stumble upon this turtle right at her hour of need?
Lesson 2: you are always EXACTLY where you are meant to be 🍃
Once she was free we went back to the boat and began setting up for emergency surgery. The wounds were infected and had been open for some time, I was worried - how was I going to fix this little turtle with only the supplies we had on board?! Lucky for Billie we had been running a neuter clinic on nearby islands so we had a spay kit, anaesthesia, pain relief and antibiotics on board. We administered the anaesthetic and began cleaning her wounds, all the while administering fluids to rehydrate her. The broken back flipper was my biggest concern.... but I was determined to at least try to save it... using a needle I somehow managed to place a pin into the bone to realign it, on a rocking sail boat no less! We cleaned and closed all of her other wounds as well and then crossed our fingers. I was really worried things would not go well, but it was worth a shot - what did we have to lose?
Lesson 3: even if you think you will fail, TRY! 💪🏼
Two weeks later Billie was still onboard and getting stronger each day. We were feeding her morning and night, keeping her hydrated and treating her wounds with a cocktail of pain relief, antiinflammatories and antibiotics. She was such a little fighter and managed to turtle her way into our hearts. But we knew we couldn't keep her for ever, and on arrival back to Panamá city we teamed up with the local marine wildlife veterinarians to do further testing and set Billie up in her long term home at the Smithsonian Institute. Her X-rays showed, to my surprise and delight, the pin was in place aligning the bones in her back flipper and things seemed to be going well. It was time for us to say goodbye to darling Billie and head off to the United States for some family time. The veterinarians promised to keep in touch and we had plans to visit Billie as soon as we got back. I was worried leaving her, she was getting stronger but by no means out of the woods, but ever the optimist I had high hopes she would be swimming around her tank by the time we returned.
Lesson 4: be OPTIMISTIC, even if you're not sure 👍🏼
While we were in the United States we received some bad news... Billie had a set back, she had refractured the back leg and the veterinarians had to amputate. I still had hope though - many turtles are released from rescue centers with three legs so things could still work out... but then the final blow was dealt. Billie fractured her front flipper, and further testing revealed her kidneys were failing. The veterinarians euthanised her the morning we arrived back in Panamá city. I was devastated - I couldn't help but question myself and wonder what else we could have done for her. But I also had to remind myself that we had saved her from a slow and painful death entangled on that island, and given her a few weeks of comfort.
Lesson 5: have courage to accept the thing you CAN'T change 🌤
We will miss Billie so much, and we wish more than anything that she could have been released into the wild to reproduce and help a save her species. But some things are not meant to be. And we do not want Billie's death to be in vain - so the most important lesson of all...
Lesson 6: HUMANS killed Billie, and we are slowly killing the world 💔
Not only did we rescue Billie from an entangled mess of man made trash, but during her time with us Billie pooped out a tonne of plastic. We are slowly choking the planet with pollution and our own unawareness of what we are doing. So if Billie's story has touched your heart please take action. It can be tiny things like saying no to a straw, or buying a reusable water bottle. So Billie's final lesson for you all...
Lesson 7: You can make a DIFFERENCE to help save the world 🌎
To see more of Billie's story check out her rescue episode.
Thank you to the veterinarians and workers at the smithinsian institute that helped care for Billie and made the tough decision to let her go, visit www.panacetacea.org to learn more about what they are doing to save Panamás marine life.