OKINAWA, JAPAN --
On the subtropical shores of an unnamed beach, just north of Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan, Master Sgt. Zachariah Spitzer beachcombed, as he often does in his spare time, for whatever curiosities the teal-blue Pacific waters might wash ashore. Items typically found on Okinawan beaches include a variety of seashells, sea glass, hunks of coral, and, occasionally, artifacts from World War Two. As Spitzer continued his morning ritual, he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. Further examination revealed a large, tangled fishing net, which, as he approached it, revealed life behind the inanimate object—a sea turtle caught in the netting. He noted that it was still alive but its front, right flipper was severely injured and tightly bound by rope.
Spitzer took immediate action; using his hands, he began the process of removing the outer layer of netting, steadily transitioning to the animal’s mangled flipper, for which he utilized his multi tool’s serrated blade to methodically saw the rope, careful to avoid adding pressure to the injured animal’s appendage, before finally releasing the turtle from the restrictive netting. After verifying no additional rope remained imbedded in the turtle’s joint, he called the Churamura Okinawa Sea Turtle Conservation and waited for additional help.
“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.
The Churamura Okinawa Sea Turtle Conservation redirected Spitzer’s call to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. He described the situation to an official from the aquarium and was promptly instructed to bring the turtle to meet with the Churaumi representative in person. During their meet-up, the Churaumi representative informed 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
Immediately following the exchange, they moved the sea turtle to a facility within the aquarium to receive proper medical care. Due to the severe nature of the injury, medical professionals had no choice but to amputate the Hawksbill’s flipper—a move which ultimately saved the animal’s life.
In response to news of the procedure, Spitzer said, “It’s good knowing that you made a difference to an animal that definitely wasn’t going to make it. Whether it passes or it’s able to be released, it’s still a good feeling because either you got it out of harm's way, and helped lessen its suffering, or you got it rescued, and it’s going to swim around one flipper less.”
The turtle’s condition significantly improved since receiving surgery. Currently, it resides at the aquarium, where it is expected to be released sometime in the spring or summer of this year.
Spitzer dedicates much of his spare time to wildlife preservation; he began actively volunteering in 2015 and acquired valuable experience from multiple animal rescues throughout his Marine Corps career. The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, is the institution in which he volunteered the most. There he assisted with sea lion rehabilitation—a lengthy, team-oriented process that includes top notch veterinary care, animal husbandry, and regular cleaning and feeding over the course of the animal’s recuperation period, and which culminates in their eventual release back into the ocean.
When asked if he had any advice for potential volunteers, Spitzer suggested, “Find something you want to volunteer doing—something you like doing. Whether you want to pick up trash, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or work with animals, I would figure that out first and then look for opportunities. Seek those places out, show up with a good attitude, show up on time, and ready to work.”
Even with his busy schedule as the avionics chief for Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 267, Spitzer finds time on Sundays to volunteer. He encourages others to do the same and give back to their community.
“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.”