Online Exclusive Interview: Sherrie Floyd Cutler, Senior Aquarist at the New England Aquarium

While generations of Bostonians have visited Myrtle the Turtle at the New England Aquarium, they’ve often watched as wetsuited divers in the Giant Ocean Tank handfeed Myrtle, pat her head, or make frantic hand gestures that she seems either to understand or stubbornly ignore. To learn about her history and to understand the unique relationship Myrtle has with her handlers, Boston spoke to senior aquarist Sherrie Floyd Cutler, who jokes that she’s been the turtle’s “personal assistant” for 16 years.

MRB: So let’s get a couple essentials out of the way first. How old is Myrtle, roughly?

SFC: We don’t know exactly, but we based our estimate on a few facts. First, she was already a mature adult when she came to us, and we know that turtles reach sexual maturity at around 30 years. So that was the only information we had to go on. Back in the day, it was before I was here, people said, “Okay, let’s say she’s 30.” And it’s sort of gone from there.

In terms of the public and telling them how old she is, the example I use is, “I can look at you and say, I could guess what your age range is, but unless I was there, or knew you when you were born, I have no idea exactly how old you are.” It’s the same thing with animals. If you weren’t there when they were hatched or born, you don’t know exactly how old they are. So we use age classes with sea turtles: they’re either hatchlings, juveniles, sub-adults or adults. So she’s an adult, and we estimate her age. We’ve just been going up from 30, because we just took a rough estimate that she had to be at least 30 because we knew she was an adult, so we’re saying somewhere around 70ish. And we always end with ‘ish.’ 70ish, 75ish, something around there. We’re probably pretty close.

MRB: Is that middle-aged, for a turtle? What’s the life span usually?

SFC: I’d say she’s middle-aged. It depends on what scientist you’re talking to, but I think most of the information out there would point, in terms of their longevity, to 100–plus years.

MRB: She’s a green sea turtle. What’s her genus and species?

SFC: Chelonia mydas.

MRB: Her weight?

SFC: After years of not knowing, we finally devised a protocol that allows us to weigh her. The most recent weight is 555 pounds.

MRB: How long have you been weighing her?

SFC: We started weighing her in 2008. We were always guesstimating and the funny thing is we were always so close. People were saying anywhere from 450 to 550 pounds, and just by understanding her body mass and size, that’s where we were coming up with that figure. And before we first weighed her, we actually had a contest to see who could guess the closest. But that’s what she weighs now and what we’re trying to do is keep her weight down. If you look at her, she’s a little…I like to call her “big–boned.” But this is not what a green sea turtle should look like. She should definitely be a little bit trimmer. And it’s difficult when you have an animal in captivity, they tend to be fed and in some cases, this is a good thing — in most cases, it’s a good thing — they tend to be fed very well. But there’s always this line that you try not to cross which is making sure that they’re fed well and getting all the nutrients they want without going overboard and having them gain weight. A sea turtle in the wild would travel thousands of miles from her breeding ground to her feeding ground every couple of years, so they’re much more active and they don’t tend to get as much food as they would in captivity.

MRB: I’ve actually seen sea turtles while snorkeling and they’re always going for that little bit of grassy area, but they’re not herbivores, right?

SFC: Green sea turtles are considered omnivores, and I think a lot of people think of them as herbivores, because their primary diet is grasses and algae, depending on where they’re from. But they’re also getting a lot of protein in terms of invertebrates, so it’s a mistake for institutions to restrict them to a vegetation diet; in the wild, they do need the protein. The trick to keeping Myrtle’s weight down is trying to give her the least amount of protein as possible, and keep her satiated with greens. The nice thing is, the animals that eat marine vegetation will readily accept the same sorts of produce that we buy at the markets, so she’s getting Brussels sprouts and broccoli, carrots, red peppers, lettuce…and we let her have as much of that within reason.

MRB: I’ve heard that you go to Haymarket and get crates of produce for her…

SFC: We used to, but now we have a really good vendor that delivers for the café downstairs, and they love that they feed Myrtle and deliver for Myrtle too. So she gets two cases of food a week — that’s just for her. Two cases of produce and it’s just a variety of stuff.

MRB: What weight are you trying to get her down to?

SFC: I want to avoid saying “trying to get her down”…because to be honest here, I just think that she’s at a point in her life, where I don’t think we’re going to get her lower than 500 pounds. That would be great. I would be happy with that. But I think there’s another issue at play too, and it’s a quality of life. Sometimes, you want to make sure the animal is happy and vibrant and enjoying their life. I don’t want to humanize her too much, but I want to make sure her quality of life is good too. That’s got to carry some weight, as well as her health. Like I said before, it’s just a challenge, trying to give her the amount of food to keep her satiated and happy, but not go overboard.

MRB: What’s her favorite food?

SFC: Brussels sprouts. To her, they’re like M&M’s, she gobbles them up.

MRB: Is there anything you’ve found that she doesn’t like?

SFC: That’s a good question. It’s funny; sea turtles tend to go into what we call a “fast” every couple years, where their appetite goes way down — even Myrtle’s — to a point where they eventually are not eating for several months at a time. That correlates with the breeding seasons. It’s at a time in their life where they’d be traveling and not have access to food, usually immediately beforehand they’re eating a lot. Myrtle is just about to go into that fasting period too, so the only time she doesn’t like any of the produce is when she starts going into that fasting mode. Its funny, she’ll go off certain things first. She first starts rejecting the red peppers, then the carrots, then the broccoli, then the lettuce, and then Brussels sprouts. The last thing she clings to is the fish and squid. She loves the stuff she really shouldn’t have too much of, like us. Very much like us. And eventually she loses interest in that. But she will take food from us; we make sure that she eats a little something everyday, but literally, it might just be a couple shrimp or something. But she won’t come to her feeding station: it’s not worth the effort to her. So that’s the only time that we would actually go to her and feed her. Otherwise she’ll come to us. She makes it well known when she’s ready to eat.

MRB: Again, I always thought she was an herbivore, because when I’ve been here, that’s what I’ve seen her be fed.

SFC: Right, that’s what you see. She eats a very small amount of protein, about three-quarters of a pound of protein a day, which is split into two feedings. It consists of low-fat items like squid and shrimp, and maybe a couple of pieces of pollock, some sort of low-fat fish. And that’s it for the most part, and she gets a vitamin. She also gets some omnivore gel, which is great — that’s just packed with nutrients. It’s a great way to get food in, get the right nutrients into captive animals.

MRB: Now I’ve heard she’ll pretty much do anything for squid?

SFC: I said Brussels sprouts is her favorite food, but no, that’s her favorite produce. She puts squid on a pedestal. And she will steal squid right from the shark’s mouth. We’ve seen her brush by a shark with squid tentacles hanging out of its mouth, and Myrtle grabs it right out of the shark’s mouth. It’s the only way to get her into the box that we weigh her in. We just swim with squid and it’s like a carrot on a stick. You just throw the squid in the box and then she swims in the box. She gets about a quarter of the way in and realizes “ugh…ughhh…I don’t want to go in there…” and she tries to back up and that’s when we divers have to give her a big push, that last and final push and then the box comes out. So, it’s tricky, but its for her own good.

MRB: That box — is that how do you weigh her?

SFC: It’s a large box, made of some sort of plastic. The original use is for aquariums that have to make their own salt water; they get salt in these big giant boxes. So we obtained one of those, and we just modified it, we drilled holes for drainage, we got straps that were rated for something like a million pounds and all the right carabiner clips. We hook it up to an overhead hoist, and we unhook two straps and dip it halfway in the water, swim her in, then the divers pass the straps up to us and we hook it to the hoist, and we can bring her right out of the water. The water drains right out, and there’s usually a hanging scale and that’s how we get her weighed. And then the veterinarians can come out and they can do a fairly thorough exam, and that includes getting blood. And this was something that was always a huge challenge in the past, because really she was too big for any of the harnesses that we’ve had that can also hook up to the hoist. So our exams consisted only of veterinarians who were scuba certified, who had to do it while swimming. Once we tried to get her up to this little beach area, and you’d have six people holding her still, but she could still toss most of us around like rag dolls. And getting blood from an almost 600 – pound animal…it’s only going to happen if she says it is.

MRB: So how do you get her to do something?

SFC: We can motivate her with food. Actually, she was a part of a landmark hearing study. Lots of institutions have trained sea turtles, though they’re not known for their intelligence, but usually it’s just one move. They hit a paddle with their flipper and they get a reward. They hit a paddle with their snout and get a reward. With Myrtle, we actually trained her to make a decision. We had three small platforms, with two speakers on the two end platforms and a light box in the middle. She would have two choices. Either the light would go on, or the light would go on with a tone. So she had to wait, and she would wait right in front of the light box, and if just the light went on, she was to touch that box. If the light went on with a tone, she was to leave the box and choose the speaker that was making the tone.

And this was really groundbreaking in terms of training a sea turtle, because she had to think about it. And you’d see her go like,  “no…no…that’s not it…” and come back. When she first started learning, she would just go hit everything, all three things, which was really very funny for us. But then, she got it. She clicked and she realized that “I’m only going to a speaker if there’s a sound, and if there isn’t and if its just a light, then…” She had to make this choice, which was a very sophisticated decision for a sea turtle to make.

MRB: You don’t usually think of a turtle actively processing…

SFC: She was the perfect candidate for this study, because she’s unique. This is going to sound silly, but she doesn’t really behave like a reptile. She seems to be genuinely interested in things that we’re doing, even when we don’t have food. Almost to the point of being nosy about everything that goes on in the tank. She’s right underfoot or I should say, right underflipper. She loves having her back scratched. I’ve had her fall asleep in my lap while I’ve been patting her head, or she’ll look up at you. If you’re working on something, because we have to do some maintenance sometimes in there, she wants to know what the tools are. She touches things and makes eye contact…its very, very, unusual behavior for a reptile. I love her. She’s my favorite in the tank.

But we’re so used to her now, that we get into almost little arguments with Myrtle sometimes. Because she is always underfoot, and sometimes it’s really fun and funny, and other times when you’re really busy and you have a really important task at hand, you’re like, “Myrtle! Myrtle! Get out of here! This does not concern you!” Whenever we’re at the platform, she’s hanging all over us, trying to see what’s on the platform, around the platform, and I’m constantly pushing her away. She has her own platform where she eats, and our hopes were, “Okay, we’re going to convince her that nothing good is going to happen at the dive platform, all the good things happen at your platform.” Well, she gets that she eats at that platform, but that doesn’t mean that whenever she’s not eating there, that she’s not going to come over and find out what’s going on over here. You know what I mean, it didn’t work. She’s a unique one.

MRB: I’ve heard that you guys have done promotional ads and film shoots at night, after hours so you don’t have visitors running around. And while a cameraman is in the water trying to shoot something else, the diver in the water is just trying to distract Myrtle, and you’ve got 90 seconds before Myrtle wonders, “What’s he doing over there?” and tries to get in the shot…

SFC: Oftentimes we do have to put a Myrtle distracter in the water, if you really have to get something done. For example, we did shark exams this past summer and that’s a huge ordeal to pull out sharks, and you just can’t have her in the way. Then it becomes not funny, but a safety issue for both the divers and the sharks and Myrtle. She must love it, because she gets twice the food she’s supposed to be getting, and we have volunteers or interns just stationed at her platform and just literally feeding and feeding her. And as long as she’s being fed, that’s more interesting than the sharks, and the minute it stops, she looks over, wonders what’s going on and goes right at it. So no matter what the procedure is, she factors in. We always have to ask, “Okay, so what are we going to do with Myrtle?” The volunteer or intern should know how important that role is; the whole thing would fall apart if we didn’t have that person doing that job.

MRB: Over these 40 years, she’s seen generations of animals. I don’t now how you can quantify it. How many species are in the tank?

SFC: Right now, we’re somewhere around 125 species, and probably about 600 individuals. And that’s generally a good ballpark number for any given year, sometimes its going to be a little up or a little down.

MRB: There’s no way to even estimate how many animals have been in there during Myrtle’s 40 years in the tank…

SFC: No. It would take a lot of work actually…Because you’ve got big stuff that doesn’t turnover that often, like sharks and turtles, but then you’ve got the smaller fish where it’s just a constant turnover, like it would be in the ocean.

MRB: In terms of her interaction with some of the animals, do the sharks yield to Myrtle?

SFC: They yield to Myrtle. Pretty much everyone yields to Myrtle. We call her the Queen of the Giant Ocean Tank. They keep their distance. Myrtle is not the slightest bit intimidated. If squid is involved and she thinks she can get it, she’s going to take any risk imaginable. And like I said, even going as far as not just trying to get it before it got to the shark’s mouth, but ripping it right out of the shark’s mouth. For a big girl, she can be very fast. Very sneaky. One of our other challenges in making sure that we don’t overfeed her is that it’s not just about the food that she gets, it’s about feeding other animals and having her just outcompete them and outsmart them…or outsmart us. Like when I’m trying target–feed this animal that hasn’t eaten for several days, and this animal is just about to take it and VOOOM, just like that…aggghh, Myrtle!

MRB: Do the sharks feel like there’s some natural hierarchy in the water, since Myrtle is so much bigger and has been there longer?

SFC: It’s a theory, but I don’t really think so. I think if push came to shove and the sharks really felt threatened, they’re going to become sharks. They tend to get spooked when she gets close and they’re more apt to back off than be aggressive. Sand tiger sharks are considered a docile species but we have to our wits about us when we’re feeding them — I mean I’ve seen these guys snap like any other shark. And I think that if they were really challenged, that they would step up to the plate and live up to their name.

Some of Myrtle’s interaction with other animals over the year has been interesting though. For example, when she was really into the thick of that hearing study, she started to associate that equipment — the speakers, the light box — as her stuff and we saw this real territorial behavior. She would sort of hover around it and if any turtle came within inches of that, she would chase the turtle across the tank to get it away from her stuff. And we thought, “Okay, that makes sense…turtles are going to pose a territorial threat to each other.” So that makes sense, but then we noticed that even if the bigger fish got a little close, she would chase them off. That was very interesting. She has had some interaction with other turtles; it’s clear that she is the dominant turtle in the tank, but you don’t really see that much interaction. Every now and then she’ll hassle a turtle that’s simply swimming by and she’ll give this look and sort of muscle into it a little, and the turtle will sort of dart off.

A really funny thing that happened recently is that we just put in this new little sea turtle, Ari, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. We’re starting to call her “Little Myrtle,” because she’s got a huge appetite which is really unusual for the ridleys. They tend to be picky eaters. She’s just like Myrtle: we had to create a feeding station with her, because she was getting nippy with the divers, associating us with food. So there’s been some interesting interactions between those two, and Myrtle is like this giant thing and she’s this little thing. Every now and then you’ll see them coming towards each other, and there’s just this eye contact and they get this close and then turn, but they’re both looking at each other like this, and the little one doesn’t back down. She does not back down. It’s really interesting to see. I did see Ari back down the other day: she’s new to the tank and she decided she was going to sleep in Myrtle’s favorite sleeping spot. I saw Ari down there, and I got the other divers to hang out and see what would happen when Myrtle came back to her spot.

So sure enough, Myrtle comes over and she literally glared, just glared at this turtle and this little turtle looks up and just tries to rest again. Myrtle just gets closer and glares…no biting, just glared until the little turtle took off, and Myrtle just settled into her spot. So, she’s definitely got some clout in there. Was this a territorial type thing, survival of the fittest? It could be as simple as that, or was this some social conflict going on there? Who knows, you know? We see so many things in this exhibit that contradict what we believe the behaviors to be in the wild. Even as a scientist, I can’t deny it sometimes.

MRB: What about the fish who have been here a long time, like the tarpons — is there much interaction with them?

SFC: Not so much. She’ll steal a squid from anybody, it doesn’t matter. She does not discriminate — if she thinks she can get a squid from you, she’s going to. You got the squid and I want it. It’s really straightforward. But with Ari, I can see they recognized each other; it’s not just any turtle getting in the way, there’s definitely something there. I think if we were to take all of those tarpon out and completely replace them, she would just assume it’s the same old tarpon. But sometimes these inexplicable behaviors are what will create animal lovers. I see behaviors in there that completely contradict what I know as a scientist, but I can’t deny that I see it. Even above and beyond Myrtle, there’s just stuff that goes on in there that as a scientist I know I shouldn’t or wouldn’t expect.

MRB: What about her history at the New England Aquarium — how she came here, where she was before?

SFC: We have the original report documenting when Myrtle arrived at the aquarium. She arrived on June 12th, 1970. And you’ll hear people say Myrtle has been here as long as the aquarium has and it’s just a figure of speech, because its pretty close. She came the year after we opened. She came from the Provincetown aquarium, and it was a trade for some smaller turtles that we had. And that’s very common for aquariums and zoos to trade surplus animals to each other. In terms of conservation, it helps partially to stock exhibits, especially when you’re talking about an endangered species. Myrtle was too big for their tank, so it worked great for us. Myrtle’s got the biggest file out of any individual animal here. For the Giant Ocean Tank, we only keep individual animal records for the sharks, the rays and the sea turtles. And nobody has a folder this fat.

MRB: How long was she at the Provincetown aquarium?

SFC: That we don’t know. As you can imagine, record keeping was a little shoddy back in those days. She could have been in captivity most of her life. The goal of this aquarium, and probably most aquariums, is to release endangered sea turtles. But some turtles have obvious reasons for not being releasable. Myrtle is not so obvious. She has no notable health issues or injuries that would prevent her from being released in the wild, but just based on her behavior that I’ve been telling you about…I mean she’d be swimming up to every swimmer, snorkeler, diver, boat, or shark, and she would not know to go find food on her own. So we are certain that she would perish if we released her. It’s in her best interest to keep her in captivity.

MRB: When an animal has been here 40 years, she has probably gone through a lot of reproductive cycles. Not to sound weird, but does she have a sexual history? Do turtles have some version of going in heat?

SFC: Well, there was a male sea turtle at one point named Blackie. According to our records, he was a donation from the Montreal aquarium and arrived here in August 1970. He was here all through the ‘80s, and in July of 1991, Blackie was transferred to the Pittsburgh zoo. The reason was that he aggressively pursued Myrtle during the breeding season, which comes in the early spring and summer every other year. Let’s just say Blackie was very interested in Myrtle, and the feeling was not mutual. He really just chased her around endlessly, could not take a hint, and it got to the point of her being really stressed out. It was probably the only time she wasn’t in complete control. So unfortunately, Blackie had to go away.

MRB: How does Myrtle behave when that breeding season comes around?

SFC: There are behaviors that we recognize as behaviors that we would see in wild sea turtles during that mating season. There are physiological cues and environmental cues, and most scientists would agree it’s a combination of both that provokes a sea turtle to go into that fasting mode. What’s interesting at the aquarium is that we don’t have the environmental cues, which would be a change in light and maybe water temperature. So that says to me that these turtles could depend solely on physiological cues.

Something goes on in a female turtle’s body; egg follicles are starting to develop. With ultrasound, we can actually see the development of follicles and know, “Okay, this turtle is in breeding mode.” Then you’ll see Myrtle start to fast, and you’ll just see her swimming and swimming, and resting and swimming, and swimming and resting, and this is because in the wild she would now be leaving the feeding ground for the breeding ground. It’s very routine, almost every two years around this time of year. And it’s always preceded by her appetite being through the roof, which is maddening for us, because under normal circumstances she has a huge appetite, and right before this season, she’s out of control. That’s when she does the bulk of her shark–food stealing, and that’s when she’s at her worst in terms of getting herself into trouble over her appetite. But then it starts to wane, and then her fast is exactly like what would be happening if she were in the wild.  This period can last anywhere from three to six months.

MRB: And the behavior is tied to the fact they would migrate a lot when they would breed.

SFC: Yes. They would not have access to food during this migration, which is thousands of miles, and they wouldn’t eat very much during the actual mating process. They don’t go find one mate, do the dirty deed, lay the egg, and leave. They may have several mates over the course of the season, then they hang out in this breeding ground for weeks and lay more than one nest. They mate with more than one partner, and then who knows what physiological or environmental cue says, “Okay, go back to your feeding ground and eat.”

And the interesting thing about sea turtles is that there could be tons of algae or grass right there at the mating ground, but they will travel thousands of miles to go back to the feeding ground, which is amazing. And no matter where they decided where their feeding ground is, so to speak, when it’s time to breed, they go back to the same nest area that they were hatched out of. That’s fascinating to me. I mean, why don’t you just find a great feeding ground and just mate there? There’s all sorts of things that can happen to them, all sorts of risk that they take to travel these miles to go from one ground to another every two years. It something we don’t understand.

MRB: Can you walk me through Myrtle’s daily routine?

SFC: The other turtles are fed every other day, once a day, which is fine with them. Myrtle is a grazer: she would just be grazing and picking at algae and grass all day, so what we try to do is break her food down into several small meals, usually five or six feedings a day. We try to coordinate it with the shark feedings, so that she’s not all over us when we’re feeding the sharks. There’s shark feedings in the morning and in the afternoon, so there’s always going to be a Myrtle feeding then. With the sharks, she’s got to be out of the way. But basically, that’s her routine. She does get a back rub at 1:15 p.m., and that’s with a brush to keep off bacteria or anything forming on her shell.

With all of our animals, but especially with someone like Myrtle, there’s a lot of care. The veterinarians come in for biannual exams, where all the turtles come out of the water and they get a close look. Everything from ultrasound to blood drawn for tests; her eyes are looked at, her mouth. And the vet said that it would be good idea to give her a good back rub everyday with a brush, so she gets a back rub everyday. And then she gets lots of other treats in terms of us just scratching her back or rubbing her head…you know, just sort of playing with her.

MRB: Now I don’t understand exactly why she likes a back rub, how she can feel it on her shell.

SFC: There are nerve endings right up to the tip of the carapace, which is what the back is called. And she just loves it. Sometimes I can pick up a shell and show it to her and she’ll follow me, because it’s one of those shells with the protrusions that she recognizes, and I’ll use that instead of my hand, and she just rocks back and forth. You can just see it in her face, like “Ooh,” loving it.

She’ll scratch her own back too: she gets under things, and she’ll do it herself. We tend to give her a better back scratch because we can get the whole shell; she’s just getting one little section. The other thing she likes too is when we do event dives sometimes at night, and whoever the people are who are renting the aquarium might request divers in the tank, and we usually have a lot of fun with that. She gets extra food, because we’ll take her around the tank, and we’ll have a head of lettuce and just break a piece off and just drop it in front of each window. So she’ll go to each window, right up to it, and people are like, “Whoooaa!”

She’s really cooperative when it comes to trying to offer a really unique experience to visitors. You can always count on Myrtle. We sometimes just take her for granted. I’ve been working with her for 16 years, and everyone here will tell you that Myrtle and I have this special bond. There’s an IMAX theatre with a little clip to promote the aquarium, and Myrtle is supposedly speaking and telling people about the aquarium, and it’s my voice — it’s me! The funny thing is, I actually went to a radio studio to record this, and they asked me, “Okay now, use a voice that’s almost happy, like [high – pitched, cutesy] ‘Hiiii, I’m Myrtle!’” And it just wasn’t working, it wasn’t working. And they were like, “How do you think she’d talk?” I said I think she’d be a little tough. I just don’t think she’s Disney. That’s just not her. She’s tough. And so I sort of talked like, “Hey, I’m Myrtle, I’ve been around this tank a few times…” And actually, they just said, “That’s it. That sounds like what she would sound like.” I have a rough sort of voice, it just sort of works. So I’m the voice of Myrtle at the IMAX theater.

MRB: Yeah, I never had the image of Myrtle as a shrinking violet.

SFC: Yeah, she’s no shrinking violet, no cutesy Disney. Not to put down Disney, but there’s none of that “Hi, look at me!” with her. She’s got sort of a tough–girl attitude. If she were a person, I think she’d smoke.

MRB: It’s funny, she’s been around so long. I saw her as a kid, and now I’m bringing my nieces and nephews. How many generations do you think she’ll be around?

SFC: Every now and then we’ll have that “Let’s prepare ourselves” conversation, because she can’t last forever. But I have this feeling that she’s going to be here after me, so I don’t have that worry like it’s any day now, because she’s so hearty and real. She’s like a rock. She’s just such a constant in that tank. Fish have rotated in and out and in and out, but there’s always Myrtle. I’m telling you, when she goes, we’re going to have to put some sort of plaque up.