Exploring the National Aquarium: How a 450-pound Green Sea Turtle Taught Me about the Chesapeake Bay

from Wildlife Promise

Wildlife-Friendly DMV connects wildlife enthusiasts in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia to local wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation. I will share with you the wildlife and nature where I “roam,” and bring to life the stories of people around our region who speak up for wildlife.


I walked into the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland and instantly turned into my 8-year-old self; all giddy inside, I rounded the corner in anticipation of my first animal sighting.

And there she was: Calypso. A 450-pound green sea turtle.

Meet Calypso: a 450-pound green sea turtle who lives at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. MBlevins/NWF

Rescued off the coast of Long Island in 2000, Calypso was cold-stunned and her left, front flipper was severely infected. Because of the infection, the Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) determined that her flipper would have to be amputated to save her life.

At first, I didn’t notice that Calypso only had three fins, as it didn’t stop her playful demeanor. She swam amongst the sting rays and zebra sharks, cruising around—almost like she was saying hello to all the aquarium guests.

Through Calypso, I saw how the work of the National Aquarium and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) can come together to protect and restore the wildlife and habitats of the Chesapeake Bay.

Joining Forces to Support the Chesapeake

In November 2011, the National Aquarium in Maryland became NWF’s newest affiliate (an affiliate is a voluntary relationship between independent statewide organizations which support the purposes and objectives of NWF). The partnership will link conservation efforts from Appalachia, to the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Specifically, the Chesapeake Bay is home to hundreds of native plants and wildlife, as well as important wetlands that support migrating birds and other species. In 1999, the National Aquarium realized it needed to strengthen the connection between the natural world and its visitors.

“Our conservation program [at the National Aquarium] helps make that wildlife connection not only in our building, but out in the region through large scale projects and community involvement,” said Laura Bankey, Director of Conservation at the National Aquarium.

This is a floating wetland outside of the Aquarium in the Baltimore Harbour. The wetland is man-made from all recycled materials. MBlevins/NWF

Education for All Ages

Through educational tools, inside and out of the classroom, the National Aquarium brings schools and communities together to learn about the Chesapeake Bay.

At the Aquarium itself, visitors can instantly learn about Maryland and the Bay area. The outside landscape has Bay themed plants and natural habitats, including native plants found on the Chesapeake coast like ferns, trees and grass-like plants. Inside, the second floor of the Aquarium features four Maryland exhibits that demonstrate how water unites different parts of the natural world; from the mountains to the sea.

Out in the “field,” locals and volunteers have learned the importance of the Bay—for animals and humans alike. In fact, I learned that channels in the region are dredged for boats, and the materials –traditionally dumped into the ocean—are used to recreate wetlands, such as areas in Blackwater and Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge.

In more than 12 years, the National Aquarium’s conservation efforts have resulted in 155 more acres of wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay. Each acre has 18,000 plants that were planted by hand for a total of 1.4 million plants.

“It’s about being able to connect local citizens and students to the areas that they are most likely to care about,” said Bankey.

“What animal weighs 450-pounds and eats nothing but vegetables?”

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As I weaved through the Aquarium taking in the jellyfish, dolphins, snakes, frogs and endless amounts of exotic fish, I couldn’t help but overhear a group of student’s chatter about finishing the scavenger hunt first –one kid whispered to her competitor that she wouldn’t give away any of her answers.

For students, the National Aquarium provides opportunities to learn about the species and habitats that exist right in their own backyards. From September to February each year, Maryland students (Pre-K-12) can visit the aquarium for free. Outreach education with the Aquarium includes terrapins in the classroom, planting native plants, maintaining fish and plant ponds, and a variety of classroom presentations such as marine mammals and squid dissection lab.

“There are animals down the street that you may not know are there and we are helping kids make the connection that these animals in that water rely on healthy environments, like good quality of water,” said Bankey. “And your health is tied to this too—we all need to do our part to create a healthy Chesapeake Bay and be healthy neighbors.”

Protecting the Chesapeake for Years to Come

An animal ambassador is a rehabbed animal that is unable to live in the wild, but helps to educate the public. MBlevins/NWF

At 2:30 p.m., volunteer divers feed Calypso her daily diet: romaine lettuce and Brussels sprouts. For Breakfast, she ate green peppers.

As I watched Calypso bob her head for the Brussels sprouts, I learned that turtles traditionally don’t use their back fins for swimming (they serve mostly as rotors for navigation), but to help compensate for only have three fins, Calypso uses all three fins equally.

It’s through animal “ambassadors” like Calypso and the National Aquarium’s conservation efforts that students—and adults—are learning how education and volunteering goes a long way in protecting species, wetlands and habitats in the Chesapeake Bay region.

This new “wildlife-friendly” friendship has created a united front on behalf of every single creature that calls the Bay region home. And though Calypso is only one example of an animal ambassador in the National Aquarium, she will always be the 450-pound green sea turtle that opened my eyes to what can be achieved when two organizations work toward the same goal of protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

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