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U.S. Marine Corps Master Sgt. Zachariah Spitzer, the avionics chief for Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 267, cuts a fishing net off an injured hawksbill sea turtle in Okinawa, Japan (Source: DVIDS)
During his spare time, Master Sgt. Zachariah Spitzer was beachcombing on the subtropical shore of an unnamed beach near Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan. He usually found seashells, sea glass, coral chunks, and sometimes artifacts from World War II. But, to his surprise, he noticed a large, knotted fishing net with a sea turtle struggling inside, its front right flipper injured and tied up with rope. Yet, despite its condition, the animal was still alive.
The Hawksbill sea turtle is a critically endangered sea turtle belonging to the family Cheloniidae. It is one of the smaller species of sea turtles and has a distinctive pattern of overlapping scales on its shells that form a serrated look. In addition, its head is narrow and has two pairs of prefrontal scales in front of its eyes, giving it a unique appearance. The Hawksbill gets its name from its beak-like jaw, which resembles that of a bird of prey, enabling them to feed on sponges and other invertebrates found in coral reefs.
Spitzer quickly sprang into action. He first started with his hands, working to remove the netting. He then shifted his attention to the animal’s damaged flipper, using a serrated blade from his multi-tool to carefully cut the rope. He was mindful not to put any pressure on the injured appendage until the turtle was finally liberated from the restrictive netting. Once he confirmed that no more rope was left in the turtle’s joint, he contacted the Churamura Okinawa Sea Turtle Conservation and waited for reinforcements.
“I kind of knew what to do if you find a stranded or injured animal, so I had been looking for volunteer opportunities out here. We’re on a short unit deployment program, so I hadn’t really taken advantage of it, but I knew there was a turtle rescue,” said Spitzer.
Spitzer’s call to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium was diverted to the Churamura Okinawa Sea Turtle Conservation. Once he explained the situation to a staff member, he was asked to bring the turtle to meet with a Churaumi representative. At their meeting, the Churaumi representative told Spitzer that the turtle was a Hawksbill Sea Turtle, which is a critically endangered species.
“They were very grateful that I called them,” Spitzer said.
“At the time I didn’t know that it was critically endangered, so it was good to get it some help.” Master Sgt. Zachariah Spitzer.
The sea turtle was immediately taken to an aquarium facility to receive the necessary medical attention. But, unfortunately, the harm was so severe that the only way to save the Hawksbill’s life was to amputate its flipper.
Hawksbill sea turtles inhabit tropical and sub-tropical waters around the world, including the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. They are most commonly found near coastlines where they can find food sources such as sponges and anemones. Unfortunately, their populations have declined due to human activities such as overfishing, habitat destruction, climate change, and pollution. As a result, conservation efforts are needed to protect this species from further decline. Organizations such as NOAA Fisheries, WWF, The Nature Conservancy, and Oceana are working hard to protect these endangered animals by raising awareness about their plight and advocating for better protection measures.
Spitzer remarked when informed of the process, “It’s gratifying to realize that you aided a creature that had no chance of survival. Whether it survives or is released, it’s a positive outcome because you got it to safety and helped decrease its suffering, or you saved it, and it will still be able to swim even with one less flipper.”
The turtle, which had a severe medical issue, has seen a marked improvement since having surgery. It is now living at an aquarium and is expected to be able to be released around the spring or summer of this year.
During his free time, Spitzer commits much of his energy to protect wildlife; his journey began in 2015, during which he gained practical knowledge from a selection of animal rescues throughout his Marine Corps tenure. Much of his volunteering was at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California. There, he helped with the rehabilitation of sea lions. This job is done in teams and requires high-quality veterinarian care, proper animal upkeep, and frequent feeding and sanitation during the animal’s healing period. Once they are in good health, they are finally freed back into the ocean.
Given the hectic lifestyle of being the avionics chief of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 267, Spitzer still manages to find time to volunteer on Sundays. He encourages others to do the same and contribute to their local area.
“Get out there and do some good when you can. We’re busy a lot so when you have the opportunity to go out there and do some extra good, I would say do it.”
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