Myrtle The Turtle

At the New England Aquarium you can pet stingrays, watch penguins play, and gaze at a giant Pacific octopus. The main attraction, however, is the giant ocean tank in the center of the aquarium. As you walk to the top of the aquarium the tank continues to rise with you, higher and higher, until you are able to look down into it from the top of the aquarium. The giant ocean tank is home to dozens of different species including eels, reefs, stingrays, and fish. Its oldest member of the tank is a green sea turtle. Her name is Myrtle.

When I first met Myrtle she was at the top of the tank eating the pieces of lettuce being thrown into the water by an aquarium employee. Myrtle is easily the biggest animal in the tank. Her allure stems from her size and her ability to give off an air of wizened authority. While the other animals in the tank seemed to simply follow the flow of the water and swim uniformly with the current, Myrtle rebelled against the norm. She was hungry and whether she knew it or not, she was putting on a show for the people around her.

My first thought was that I would love to swim with her or somehow get closer to her. I wondered how much bigger she was than me and how she’d respond to me touching the back of her hard shell. She was beautiful, exotic, and an animal that I would probably only ever interact with in my dreams. The fact that she was so unobtainable made the experience all the more magical. I could ponder the inner workings of her mind from my place above the tank while she glided swiftly below me.

Myrtle would occasionally come up to the surface of the water for air or just to munch on lettuce. It felt surreal to me because I had never been that close to a giant green sea turtle before. Her gasp for air would make ripples in the water around her. It was loud and made a tangible sucking noise. After she’d had her fill, she retired back under the water to rest on a coral reef. Green sea turtles can hold their breath for up to two hours.

When I first saw Myrtle I knew nothing about her, but I quickly realized I needed to. Unlike the other animals in the aquarium, Myrtle had a quality about her that could be personified to something royal, almost like a queen. After watching her and attempting to take pictures of her (none of them could do her justice), I shyly approached an aquarium employee to bombard him with questions about her. That’s when she became known to me. She was Myrtle the Turtle.

Myrtle came to the aquarium in 1970, a year after its initial open in 1969. Myrtle is the oldest resident at the aquarium and because of this, she’s the most famous. Generations of families come to see her so she’s become a household name around New England. It’s estimated that she’s around 90 years old.

Myrtle loves vegetables and she’s fed them five times a day. Her favorite vegetable are brussels sprouts. Her favorite food, however, is squid (she’s even attempted to steal squid from a shark’s mouth before). When she’s not eating she’s sleeping on coral reefs. The staff member told me that most of the other animals in the tank stay out of her way. They don’t want to have any problems with her.

What girl doesn't want to sleep and eat all day while having the respect, admiration, (and even fear) of all her peers? I quickly realized that Myrtle is “bad” in the same way Rihanna is. That she exuded a type of confidence and grace that not only animals could feel, but humans too.

I stayed for a while longer until I came to terms with the fact that she probably wasn’t going to resurface again. So I left, hoping that friends and family could understand her true beauty from just looking at the pictures I’d snapped of her on my iPhone. As I continued on through the aquarium, walking down the ramp that follows the giant ocean tank, I saw Myrtle occasionally swimming from reef to reef. I said my goodbyes, but I knew that even if she could answer, she probably wouldn’t care to say it back. Still, I will never forget Myrtle or the way she made me feel. She’s the only reason I’d ever pay close to $30 for an aquarium ticket.

Photography by: Cameron Radenberg