In 2008, an endangered loggerhead turtle, was rescued by a fisherman in Japan after getting tangled in fishing nets. It looked as though the turtle, the rescuers named Yu Chan, had been attacked by a shark – she’d lost much of both front flippers. The curators at Suma Aqualife Park near Kobe, Japan where Yu was taken set to designing prosthetics for the turtle. Just recently the 96 kilogram turtle received her 27th pair of prosthetic flippers, and she’s showing them off to the world.
Originally the park had intended to release Yu back into the wild after she’d recovered from her injuries. But those plans were met with public outcry, people saying it was unfair to release her with injured limbs that made her vulnerable to predators. That’s when the Sea Turtle Association of Japan sought the help of the country’s largest prosthetics manufacturer, Kawamura Gishi.
The first models allowed Yu to swim at just 60 percent of her normal speed, and because they pinched the remaining forelimb tissue to stay attached, they were also painful. One challenge is that turtles’ bones are fragile, another is the need for flexible limbs that allow them to swim in water and walk on land. They solved this problem by attaching the rubber prosthetics to a vest worn over the turtle’s head. The vest is soft which allows the flippers to flutter while Yu swims. Naoki Kamezaki, curator of Suma Aqualife Park where Yu has been since her rescue in 2008, said one of the challenges had been to design a vest that Yu wouldn’t be able to remove.
Yu isn’t the first damaged ocean dweller that Japan has tried to set right with prosthetics. Fuji, a dolphin at the Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa had lost its tail due to a skin disease. In 2004, she became the world’s first dolphin to be fitted with a prosthetic tail. The prosthetic was designed by a friend of Fuji’s handler who worked for tire manufacturer Bridgestone and was made of the same rubber used to make Formula One race car tires. The fin cost Bridgestone $83,000.
Kamezaki thinks that theirs is the only turtle in the world successfully fitted with prosthetics. As the number of improvements over the years attests, designing fake flippers isn’t easy. But, watching Yu take her new flippers for a test swim in the following video, it looks as though they made one turtle pretty happy.
[Source: VIDEOLANDMARKS via YouTube]