Caleb won’t grow as large as the other turtles at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.
That’s because he’s a Kemp’s ridley turtle. Typically, the species reaches 100 pounds at maturity. Compare that to the 300-pound weight of a mature loggerhead or the 350 pounds that adult green turtles reach.
Caleb, a juvenile whose exact age isn’t known, currently weighs in at 24.5 pounds.
Though Caleb is a small turtle, he’s kind of a big deal at Mote.
That’s because he is the first Kemp’s ridley turtle to become a permanent resident at Mote’s exhibit “Sea Turtles: Ancient Survivors,” which also has loggerhead and green turtles that can’t return to the wild.
Kemp’s ridley turtles are the rarest of all sea-turtle species, identifiable by their yellowish bottom shell and heart-shaped, olive green top shell.
Caleb has been at Mote for less than four months, but already he’s showing his smarts. He’s learning quickly in his husbandry training in which he touches a target to get a treat. (The training helps scientists and veterinarians to get captive marine animals to cooperate during procedures.)
He’s also a little bit shy. He’s slower to approach trainers than the other resident turtles.
“He’s still a little skittish,” says Holly West, sea turtle care coordinator at Mote. “Kemp’s ridleys tend to be because they’re so much smaller than other turtles.”
Caleb was rescued in November 2011 on Ormond Beach and taken to the Volusia County Marine Science Center, in Ponce Inlet.
He doesn’t have the full range of movement he would need to survive in the wild. Turtles need to endure long migrations and avoid boats and predators to survive.
He spent a little more than a year in Volusia County before arriving last December at Mote. He spent one month in Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center until he was healthy enough to be placed in the public exhibit.
That’s when a volunteer named him Caleb. And although Mote staffers and volunteers refer to Caleb as a “he” because of his name, they won’t know if he is male or female until he (or she) reaches maturity.
Caleb is now “perfectly healthy,” according to West. He has gained weight, and the bone infection he had when he arrived is gone. He has gotten more relaxed and enjoys playing with his toys.
“They like things they can scratch on or bite. They also like to hide in things,” says West of Kemp’s ridleys.
Still, don’t think this turtle’s new life is all play and no work.
Mote scientists hope to use Caleb for research purposes.
Since 2006, they’ve studied the hearing capabilities of resident loggerheads Shelley and Montego. The research has helped scientists to understand what boat noises loggerheads can hear from the water and whether they can tell what direction the noise comes from.
Caleb could help them make similar discoveries about Kemp’s ridley turtles.
Caleb also has another important job: serving as a sea turtle ambassador — a title Mote bestows upon all of its permanent sea turtle residents.
“We think of all of our sea turtles as ambassadors,” West said. “He’s a good way to educate the public.”
IN GOOD COMPANY
Caleb and Mote’s other four resident sea turtles live in the exhibit “Sea Turtles: Ancient Survivors.” For more information, visit mote.org.
Here are his neighbors:
At Mote since: 1992
Hang Tough is a green turtle who was rescued from Charlotte Harbor with a hook in one eye, a skull fracture and puncture wound. He is permanently blind and can’t be released. But he has helped researchers learn about the nutrition of green turtles and blindness in the species.
Shelley and Montego
At Mote since: 1998
Shelley and Montego are adult female loggerheads born in 1977 in North Carolina and reared in captivity.
They were used for growth-and-mating studies. When the research ended, the males in the program went to live in Orlando, while Shelley and Montego got a home at Mote. They got their names in an essay contest for school children.
Shelley is known among trainers for her enthusiasm, while Montego is the “grade A student” according to West, always acing her research exercises.
At Mote since: 2007
Harriet is a green turtle who came to Mote after she was discovered floating in the Banana River area with wounds on her head and cranial carapace that were most likely caused by a boat. She is believed to be blind in at least one eye.
Watch a video of Caleb touching a target below: