A day after World Turtle Day, SeaWorld Orlando releases 4 sea turtles into the ocean
CANAVERAL NATIONAL SEASHORE — Farewell, Alex, Linda, Knight and Ted.
A day after World Turtle Day, the three green sea turtles and 200-pound loggerhead sea turtle, respectively, returned to their natural habitat — the ocean — courtesy of the SeaWorld Orlando animal rescue team.
Once the green sea turtles took a whiff of the salty beach air, their flippers flapped like wings on a bird. The sound resembled a fast-paced golf clap. The ocean was calling to them.
Admittedly for the team, the sea turtle releases were bittersweet.
« All the turtles, when we get them, they look very sad, » said senior aquarist Carlyn Wanta. « When we’re able to give them that TLC, medication and good nutrition, and just time and attention, to see them start to turn around. … You get to a moment like this when they take off to the ocean, that’s the best reward. »
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Alex and Linda, named after Playalinda Beach because « he » was found there, were released at Playalinda at Canaveral National Seashore early Thursday. After weeks of rehabilitation, Linda bounced back after an infection. Alex had washed up on the beach last weekend. After a checkup by SeaWorld — the team suspects he was caught up in rough surf — he, too, was deemed OK to go back.
Debby Powell, a volunteer with the Canaveral National Seashore whose daughter once worked for SeaWorld’s animal rescue team, understands that bittersweet feeling.
« It absolutely is a very emotional thing for them, » she said. « Some of these turtles come in quite damaged, and they spend 24/7 rehabilitating them, begging them to eat, crying over them sometimes, and then eventually they get them to the point where they’re swimming well, they’re eating well, they’re starting to exhibit some of their more aggressive behavior, and at that point they know, we’ve had a success. »
It all falls under the team’s mission: rescue, rehabilitation, release.
Since January, « we’ve rescued 43 sea turtles, » said Wanta, adding SeaWorld has been rescuing turtles since 1980. « Earlier this year, we hit our 2,000th turtle rescue. »
The four released Thursday bring the total number of releases since January to 39.
‘They’re all unique’
« I’ve personally witnessed what happens when a rescue is not successful, » said Powell. « It’s heartbreaking every single time. Nobody ever gets used to it. »
After releasing Alex and Linda, the SeaWorld team then drove south for almost two hours to release Knight and Ted at Sebastian Inlet.
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But on the way there, a gopher tortoise was spotted on SR A1A in Melbourne Beach — in the middle of the road.
Of course, the team stopped.
Watching for cars, Wanta picked up the animal and placed it in the grass. That’s really the only scenario in which a good Samaritan can pick up a tortoise, she admitted. Because the turtles are an endangered species, one should have a permit to rescue turtles or handle them.
Wanta calls a rescue like that common, but still important.
That it happened a day after World Turtle Day, a happy coincidence.
« They all are unique, » she said of turtle rescues. Recounting a favorite, she mused, « Last year we had a loggerhead, and when we released her, she was 350 pounds. She was huge. She’s kind of my favorite one, but every turtle is different because we never know what is going to be involved in their care. »
This is so Florida
When the animal rescue team made it to Sebastian Inlet, a crowd noticed the SeaWorld truck and gathered around in the parking lot. Curious bystanders wanted to know, why is SeaWorld here? Turns out this sea turtle release would have an audience.
Knight came from the University of Central Florida through its sea turtle research program. UCF and the team are not sure what happened to the green sea turtle, but through their care, he eventually got medical clearance to go back to the ocean.
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Sitting still on a towel in his blue SeaWorld plastic tub, the turtle didn’t react when people in the parking lot collectively said « awww » and whipped out their phones for photos and video. But once Wanta carried him and the tub up the boardwalk, the turtle could hear the waves crashing, and that unmistakable salty air woke him up.
The actual release in a sea turtle release happens so fast. Once the turtle gets placed in the water, his shell is visible for a few seconds, and then he’s gone.
The team sticks around to make sure nothing’s wrong, staring out into the ocean. Besides the drive from the theme park to the beach, that part lasts longer than the release.
Like a finale, the team saved the best for last. Ted, a 200-pound loggerhead sea turtle, would need help getting to the ocean.
It took four people — Wanta, Sara Eberle, Adam Durkee and Kelsey Von De Bur — to make this happen. Strapped in a harness, the foursome carried Ted from the truck, up and down the boardwalk, taking the occasional break to rest.
Unlike the lighter, smaller green sea turtles, when Ted smelled the ocean, his flippers didn’t wave excitedly. His neck didn’t extend wildly.
This turtle was super calm.
That gave the crowd at Sebastian Inlet, a mix of families, retirees and park rangers, a very good chance to capture pics of the animal.
Then Wanta, Von De Bur and Durkee released the harness from Ted.
In the past, Wanta has seen turtles scurry uncharacteristically fast. It was the opposite with Ted. Even with gentle prodding and encouragement from Wanta — « water’s right there, you’re so close! » — it took Ted 5 minutes and 37 seconds to move 20 feet from the shore to the ocean.
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At the end, the crowd went wild. Children clapped and shouted « yes! » as the animal rescue team once again stared out into the ocean. Above the sound of the crashing waves and the wind, there was a faint but clear sing-songy message: « Thank you, SeaWorld! »
« It’s bittersweet because you do take them through hopefully what’s the worst point in their life and you give them that second chance, » Wanta said as she searched for Ted in the ocean. She saw him bob his head up a couple times to take a breath. « Hopefully, these turtles are going to stay out of trouble. Hopefully, they’ll contribute to their species. »
Farewell, Alex, Linda, Knight and Ted. Farewell.
Sangalang is a digital producer at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Sangalang at 321-242-3630
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Animal rescue tips
• If you find a stranded animal, call *FWC.
• Don’t touch the turtle or pick it up. Because it is an endangered species, one should have a permit to rescue turtles or handle them.
• Pictures are allowed, but watch the flash.
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