On May 5, Sea Life Grapevine Aquarium opened as the first sea turtle rescue hospital and rehabilitation center in North Texas. Sea Life is the first North Texas aquarium with a hospital permitted to rehabilitate and release injured sea turtles back into the wild.

Sea Life Grapevine’s first patient, a young green sea turtle given the name Pancake, is recovering from a recent surgery for a contagious disease that causes tumors.

“The first thing is having the right facility,” Sea Life Senior Aquarist Krista Huebner said. “We have the right facility, we have the right tanks, we have the commitment—because it’s a financial commitment—and we are willing to make that commitment to these turtles to help them.”

The expansion comes with an interactive exhibit that allows guests to take a virtual journey where guests can experience what it is like to rescue a sea turtle on a beach, treat the turtle for injuries and help restore the turtle’s strength before releasing it back to the ocean, as most sea turtles are found in warm and temperate waters, while learning about what other challenges sea turtles face.

The sea turtle experience allows guests to interact with nonreleasable sea turtles in a display tank, and guests can view aquarists through a glass window working with some of the injured patients in the aquarium’s new hospital.

“There’s not many places where you can go and see someone work in an actual tank,” Huebner said. “Everything we do here—when we do physical and we do weights—the public will see that, and it’s a great teaching point. People don’t know what it takes to get a turtle like this healthy. So just the routine things that we do that can make sure this turtle is healthy enough to be released, they will see all of it.”

The rescue hospital and exhibit is funded by the aquarium. Marketing Manager Amy Estrada said the aquarium had hosted a semipermanent sea turtle exhibit several years ago and saw an opportunity to bring it back as a permanent exhibit and revamp it a little, as well.

A soft opening was held May 4, where Huebner was approached several times by aquarium guests who spoke about how much they enjoyed the sea turtle experience.

The sea turtle rescue hospital experience blends with the rest of the aquarium, as the entire aquarium makes a point to educate guests about conservation efforts through signage and what guests can do to help ocean creatures thrive in their natural environments.

“Our ultimate goal is we want to inspire kids to really have that love for these animals so that as they grow up and they have kids, they teach their kids that these animals are important,” Huebner said.