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Living Coast Discovery Center, O’Neill Partner to Develop Weighted Wetsuit for Injured Sea Turtle

CHULA VISTA, CALIF. – The Living Coast Discovery Center announced today that its animal care team has developed an innovative new therapy technique for addressing the buoyancy issues experienced by its resident loggerhead sea turtle, Sapphire. A custom weighted wetsuit was developed in conjunction with a veterinarian and California surf lifestyle brand O’Neill Wetsuits. Sapphire’s story began in 2014 in the Florida Keys, where she arrived at Turtle Hospital with injuries consistent with a boat strike, which left her with a large crack across her rear carapace (shell), blindness in her right eye and severe buoyancy imbalance. She was deemed non-releasable and was flown across the country to make her “forever home” at the Living Coast, a nonprofit zoo/aquarium on San Diego Bay in Chula Vista. The big, beautiful and oddly buoyant turtle has drawn a lot of attention over the years, as she is often seen in an unusual “turtle handstand” position in the Living Coast’s Shark and Ray Experience. To help correct her imbalance issues, marine weights have been glued to her rear shell, allowing her the ability to surface and dive down into the water at her leisure. However, in April 2020, her buoyancy issues worsened, negatively affecting her sleeping and eating habits. The Living Coast team made plans to add more weights to her shell, since she is still growing and will need constant modifications as she ages. But, that “fix” would not be so simple. “We had to decide where to place the weights, as one day her buoyancy leans to the right, the next day, it’s more to the left. Other times, it’s or a little forward or backwards,” said Aiyana Reisman, Animal Care Specialist. “There was no easy, one-spot-fits-all option. We needed an approach that would allow for flexibility.” This sparked an idea: Instead of having weights permanently affixed, what if Sapphire could wear a “wetsuit” that would allow weights to be added or removed as needed? This concept would be similar to the weight belts that SCUBA-divers wear to allow them to sink. The team got to work.

A prototype was developed with the help of a small red-eared slider turtle. Next step: make it a lot bigger. Friends at O’Neill Wetsuits donated a sheet of Neoprene that was used to mock-up a sea-turtle-sized wetsuit, outfitted with Velcro and zip-tie pockets. After a fitting session, the template was sent back to O’Neill Wetsuits and the final, custom-designed suit was created just for Sapphire.

With the wetsuit in place, the Living Coast team trialed various weight locations for months, determining how much weight would go where and making readjustments. The team monitored and measured her successes, including her activity levels and calorie intake. Finally, in December, the last weight was removed along with the wetsuit and Sapphire was finally able to float horizontally and swim straight. The therapy was a success.

As Sapphire continues to grow, her buoyancy will change and she will most likely need to undergo additional “wetsuit therapy” to help straighten her out again. “It has been an incredible undertaking, and we are so happy to report that Sapphire’s eating and swimming has significantly improved,” said Executive Director Ben Vallejos. “We would like to extend a special thank you to our veterinarian, Dr. Todd Cecil at the Western Aquatic Animal Veterinary Services, Mark Massara, Brian Kilpatrick, Greg Clarke, and the rest of the team at O’Neill Wetsuits for making this amazing solution possible for Sapphire.”

Closed But Still Caring

Sapphire’s therapy is just one example of the animal care and husbandry efforts that have continued at the Living Coast, despite the fact that it has been closed to the public since mid-March 2020 due to COVID-19. No re-opening date has been set, although it will likely not be until Summer 2021. The Living Coast is offering private group tours (which can be booked at as well as a variety of virtual programming.

The mission of the Living Coast is to inspire the community to connect with and care for the coastal environment. Contributions can be made through the Living Coast’s website to support its staff, animals and operations during its extended closure.

About Living Coast Discovery Center

The Living Coast Discovery Center, a 501(c)3 educational zoo and aquarium located within the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Sweetwater Marsh, began operating as a non-profit in 2010 after assuming operations of the Chula Vista Nature Center. The Living Coast Discovery Center offers hands-on exhibits and up-close encounters with plant and animal species native to Southern California, including sea turtles, leopard sharks, reptiles and a large collection of raptors such as hawks, falcons, owls, eagles, and more. More information about the Living Coast Discovery Center is available at or (619) 409-5900. For the latest updates, follow the Living Coast on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.


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