Friday, April 12, 2013

South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtles Join the Sea Turtle Trek for Florida Release!

Sea Turtle Trek
The 6 SUVs pulling into the gas station one behind the other, looked like the Secret Service. But instead of men in suits getting out of the vehicles, a bunch of road weary yet jolly sea turtle biologists and volunteers piled out. The crew of 12 from the New England Aquarium and National Aquarium started the trip to Florida in Quincy, Massachusetts on Saturday. They made several stops on their way to pick up sea turtles from various rehabilitation facilities that were ready for release. The stop at 5am on I-95 to pick up 5 sea turtles from the South Carolina Aquarium made the grand total 52!
Meet the Turtles
First, meet the 5 South Carolina Aquarium sea turtles that were released:

McNally was one of 10 cold stunned sea turtles flown to Charleston on December 5, 2012 from the New England Aquarium. Blood was pulled (left photo) on McNally and all new patients for baseline health assessment.
Kennedy and the other little guys were safely contained in banana boxes during the December flight donated by Charleston's own Gary Davis of Davis Air, Inc.
Ollie suffered severe propeller strikes to the carapace and skull but healed amazingly well. This little green sea turtle had an extra spunky personality and was a favorite.

Kit is a loggerhead that cold stunned off the NC coast in January. What a difference a few months of care in our Sea Turtle Hospital made in Kit's physical appearance!

Preparation and loading at the South Carolina Aquarium
Long time Sea Turtle Hospital volunteer, Barbara Bergwerf and I met at 2:30 am at the Aquarium for preparation and loading of turtles. The plan was to meet the Sea Turtle Trek caravan on I-95 between 4-5 am which was about an hour away.
Barb and I transferred Kit from his holding tank to the transport container.
The 3-year old loggerhead was pulled from the Sea Turtle Exhibit on the 2nd floor of the Aquarium. Two extremely cute 1-year old loggerheads are now in the exhibit!
The two Kemp's ridleys, McNally and Kennedy (pictured), were sleeping on the bottom on their tanks when I pulled them out. Needless to say, they didn't put up much of a fight!
With the help of Aquarium night security Jamison Scott, the 5 sea turtles were loaded into the Husbandry Van and the first leg of their journey began.

5am Sunday morning at a truck stop on I-95

Barb and I drove approximately an hour to I-95 to meet the Sea Turtle Trek. Our turtles were added to mix and away they drove for the final leg of the trip to Jacksonville, Florida.
When we met the caravan and opened the van doors, we found Ollie trying to sneak out of his container. Luckily we had packed the containers well so this was as far as the little escapee could get!
Each vehicle was full of turtle boxes large and small; it was like putting a puzzle together to fit them all!
The Sea Turtle Trek crew had been on the road (trading off drivers) for 13 hours but still had big smiles on their faces! I joined them for a quick photo before they started on the last leg of the trip. 

The Release
The Sea Turtle Trek arrived in Jacksonville, FL about 11am on Sunday morning and released all 52 sea turtles into the ocean. The release crew was happy to feel the warm Florida air and firm ground under their feet.

Transport boxes with turtles were offloaded from the SUVs to the beach.
The 5 South Carolina Aquarium sea turtles were released first!
The South Carolina Aquarium sea turtles left to right: Ollie (green); McNally and Kennedy (Kemp's ridleys close to their releasers and namesakes, Kerry McNally and Adam Kennedy); Kit (loggerhead), Shannon (exhibit loggerhead).
The exhibit loggerhead and Kennedy race for the waters!
The last batch of sea turtles to be released were almost 30 from the New England Aquarium. The entire release crew lined up with turtles. What a moment!!!
Two amazing women - Jennifer Dittmar, Rescue Coordinator for the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and Connie Merigo, Rescue Manager for New England Aquarium. With the help of their staff and volunteers, these two did an amazing job coordinating the Sea Turtle Trek to help 52 threatened and endangered sea turtles get back to the ocean. Great job, ladies!

Most of these sea turtles were rescued this winter as part of the largest cold-stunning event on record in the Northeast. Many facilities, including the South Carolina Aquarium, pulled together to house the sea turtles because the New England Aquarium's Animal Rescue Center was overflowing with turtles. And many of the facilities were able to get sea turtles on this release....a beautiful ending to an exhausting but exhilarating winter. Releasing these animals back into the ocean has a way of wiping away the crazy amount of hours we all worked to get to this point - THIS is why we do what we do.

With love of turtles,
Kelly Thorvalson
Sea Turtle Rescue Program Manager

Organizations involved in the Sea Turtle Trek: New England Aquarium, National Aquarium in Baltimore, University of New England at Biddeford, National Marine Life Center, Riverhead Foundation, Virginia Aquarium and the South Carolina Aquarium.