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'Completely heartbroken’: Fans, National Aquarium staff remember Calypso, the three-flippered sea turtle

Sam Bracebridge asked his mother for a Calypso cake for his sixth birthday last May. The unexpected death of the 500-pound, three-flippered sea turtle at the National Aquarium in Baltimore on Sunday has prompted fans across the region to share their memories of her.
Sam Bracebridge asked his mother for a Calypso cake for his sixth birthday last May. The unexpected death of the 500-pound, three-flippered sea turtle at the National Aquarium in Baltimore on Sunday has prompted fans across the region to share their memories of her. (Photo courtesy of Tory Bracebridge)

Connor Miante wore a Calypso costume for Halloween in 2018. Sam Bracebridge asked for a Calypso cake for his birthday last May. Countless parents bought stuffed animal versions of the 500-pound, three-flippered sea turtle for children mesmerized by the unofficial queen of the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

For millions of visitors over the past 18 years, seeking out the majestic and beloved reptile in the ground-level Wings in the Water and Blacktip Reef exhibits had become a traditional first stop at the Inner Harbor aquarium. The roughly 22-year-old turtle’s unexpected death Sunday, of an unknown cause, upset fans around the region — especially children and those who had grown up with her.

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Thousands shared photos, drawings, memories and condolences with the aquarium on social media, astounding and helping to console the grieving staff, said Jennie Janssen, an assistant exhibit curator at the aquarium. She had helped care for Calypso since 2012.

Aquarium veterinarians quickly responded to the Blacktip Reef exhibit Sunday after a staff member saw the sea turtle “resting on the bottom in a way she normally does not,” Janssen said. A necropsy will determine the cause of death; it’s unclear how long that will take.

Notifying staff members who weren’t working over the weekend felt like having to tell them about a death in the family, Janssen said.

“We are completely heartbroken to be without her right now.”


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Just as bad, maybe worse, is explaining Calypso’s absence to children who ask where she is hiding.

“We all loved her very much, and we took care of her in the best way possible,” she said. “We are completely heartbroken to be without her right now.”

Watching Calypso glide serenely through the water, and finding the turtle in her favorite hiding spots, had been a hallmark of 6-year-old Brynlee and 2-year-old Landon Pedersen’s regular visits to the aquarium from New Freedom, Pennsylvania, their mother said.

Brynlee cried and wouldn’t eat her dinner after her mom, Jenn, broke the sad news to her about her favorite sea creature.

The turtle’s remarkable story — being rescued in 2000 in Long Island Sound, having her infected front left flipper amputated in a life-saving operation, and being relocated to the aquarium two years later because she was deemed “non-releasable” — resonated with the children, said Jenn Pederson, 32, who grew up in Baltimore and visited Calypso herself when she was younger.

“My kiddos are still praying about her," Pedersen said. “We hope she’s whole and swimming up in heaven.”

Baltimore, MD -- 7/2/13 -- The National Aquarium's $12.5 million "Blacktip Reef" exhibit has it's first tenant, Calypso, a green sea turtle and holdover from the "Wings in the Water" exhibit. The "Blacktip Reef" exhibit is part of an effort to revitalize the National Aquarium, One of Baltimore's most popular tourist attractions. -- photo by Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun
Baltimore, MD -- 7/2/13 -- The National Aquarium's $12.5 million "Blacktip Reef" exhibit has it's first tenant, Calypso, a green sea turtle and holdover from the "Wings in the Water" exhibit. The "Blacktip Reef" exhibit is part of an effort to revitalize the National Aquarium, One of Baltimore's most popular tourist attractions. -- photo by Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)

Divers entered the exhibit multiple times a day to hand-feed Calypso lettuce, chopped sweet potatoes, carrots, Brussels sprouts, peppers and gelatin with vitamins, Janssen said. Anytime a diver began suiting up, the curious, outgoing turtle would invariably swim over. When they got in the water, she liked to bowl into them, or “bumper car us out of the way,” she recalled fondly.

“She enjoyed having her shell scratched," Janssen said. "She seemed to really like interacting with the divers.”

As soon as the Bracebridge family walked into the aquarium, they used to race over to peer into the water and see who could spot Calypso first.

“It was like a scavenger hunt every time we came,” said Tory Bracebridge of Lovettsville, Virginia. “Would she be out in the open? Would we have to go looking?”

Her son Sam loved the sea turtle so much he asked for a special Calypso cake for his 6th birthday, adding: “Make sure you know which flipper is missing.”

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Bracebridge said she baked a large yellow birthday cake; formed Calypso’s head, tail and three fins out of Rice Krispies Treats; covered the whole thing with vanilla icing; and used chocolate fondant to create the turtle’s eyes, spots and shell.

Her youngest son, Ben, picked up on the Calypso craze too, she said, and now he is obsessed with turtles. He even asked her to cut off his stuffed turtle’s flipper so it would more accurately match Calypso.

“Something just clicked with them,” Bracebridge said. “The size of her, her shape and history just got them interested in ocean stuff.”

Sam was inconsolable after learning about Calypso’s death as his mother tucked him into bed one night this week, she said. They had come to the aquarium just two weeks earlier.

“He was just distraught,” Bracebridge said. “He just loves her so much. ... He really wants to know what happened and if there’s gonna be another turtle to visit.”

Calypso didn’t just entertain the boys and their 10-year-old brother Logan — her story taught them lessons about conservation and reducing pollution.

“It made them want to go to the beach and think about plastic use,” Bracebridge said.

Connor Miante wore a Calypso costume for Halloween in 2018. The unexpected death of the 500-pound, three-flippered sea turtle at the National Aquarium in Baltimore on Sunday has prompted fans across the region to share their memories of her. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Miante)
Connor Miante wore a Calypso costume for Halloween in 2018. The unexpected death of the 500-pound, three-flippered sea turtle at the National Aquarium in Baltimore on Sunday has prompted fans across the region to share their memories of her. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Miante) (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Miante)

Vanessa and James Miante bought an aquarium membership in 2017 when their elder son, Jordan, turned 2, and went so much that they decided to make their Halloween costumes aquarium-themed the following year.

James was a dolphin trainer. Vanessa a jellyfish, and Jordan a scuba diver. Connor, only 10 months old at the time, was Calypso.

The Miantes, who live near the water in Severna Park, saw the turtle’s story as a way to discuss the importance of taking care of animals’ natural habitats.

“We use her as a good jumping off point to talk about conservation,” Vanessa Miante said. “It’s such a good way to bring kids in and talk about the broader issues."

The sea turtle’s absence will be noticeable, especially for regular visitors, she said.

“She’ll definitely be missed,” Miante said.

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