CLEARWATER, FL — It’s always a bittersweet moment for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium sea turtle rehab team members when they release a sea turtle they’ve spent long hours nursing back to health into the ocean.
This week, the team had had nine such moments.
That’s the number of sea turtles the aquarium staff successfully treated and was given the go-ahead to return to their homes in the wild.
On Wednesday, the team released six cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and one green sea turtle named Iggy on the East Coast of Florida. Another green sea turtle, Schmidt, was released Wednesday at Clearwater Beach. And on Thursday, Xander, also a green sea turtle, was released at Honeymoon Island State Park.
There wasn’t a lot of time for the team to get too attached to the six Kemp’s ridley cold-stunned turtles.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are a critically endangered species found in the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern seaboard of the United States. They grow to 80 to 120 pounds.
A total of eight juvenile Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were brought to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Dec. 10 from the New England Aquarium where they were part of a mass cold-stun event on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Sea turtles can experience cold-stunning when water temperatures drop below 50 degrees. This can lead to decreased circulation, lethargy and hypothermia. The turtles can develop pneumonia, as well.
The New England Aquarium treats hundreds of cold-stunned sea turtles every year. However, when the aquarium reaches the maximum number of turtles it is allowed to treat at one time, it often transfers turtles to other aquariums, like the Clearwater aquarium, that are certified to rehabilitate sea turtles.
While the New England Aquarium doesn’t name its sea turtles, the team in Clearwater couldn’t resist giving them names of characters from the holiday movie, “Elf,” due to the time of year — Jovie, Papa Elf, Walter, Francisco, Deb, Miles Finch, Ming Ming and Leon.
This week, six of the eight cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley turtles were cleared for release by the aquarium’s staff veterinarian Dr. Shelly Marquardt and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission along with Iggy, Schmidt and Xander.
Schmidt, a juvenile green sea turtle, was found stranded on Redington Beach on Dec. 2, suffering from fibropapilloma tumors near his flippers.
Fibropapillomatosis is a debilitating disease that affects sea turtles in Florida and other parts of the world. The tumors can grow so large that they hamper their ability to eat, swim, see and escape from predators.
A threatened species, green sea turtles can be found in Costa Rica, Florida and the Caribbean. They grow to 300 to 350 pounds.
Following surgery and a regimen of injections of fluids and vitamins, Schmidt was soon ready to return to his natural environment.
Iggy, also a juvenile green sea turtle, was found entangled in fishing line near Daytona Beach in Volusia County and was suffering from heavy pap tumors on both eyes and flippers. He was transferred to the aquarium from the Volusia County Marine Science Center on Sept. 21, where Marquardt performed surgery and successfully removed his tumors.
The longest aquarium patient to be released this week was Xander, a juvenile green sea turtle found entangled in a fishing line near Anchlote Key on July 16. When he was rescued, the team discovered that Xander was also dragging a fishing pole still attached to the line. After removing the line from his neck and both flippers, he received a treatment of fluids and vitamins, was placed on oral antibiotics and antifungals and underwent surgery to remove a tumor.
The aquarium said the remaining two cold-stunned turtles from New England will most likely be released in the next few weeks.
Not all sea turtles in the aquarium’s care will be released, however.
The aquarium has 12 permanent residents whose injuries and disabilities would put them at too great a risk to be released back into the wild.
Among them is Max, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and one of the aquarium’s first resident sea turtles. He’s lived at the aquarium 38 years.
Max was rescued Jan. 12, 1984, after suffering a severe head injury that left him mostly blind, disqualifying him for release. His sight problems, however, haven’t kept him from his favorite activity — eating ice toys colored with food dye.
The aquarium’s only resident loggerhead sea turtle is Snorkel. Also a threatened species, loggerhead turtles are found in nearly every ocean of the world and can grow to 200 to 300 pounds.
Snorkel was just a baby when she was discovered in November 2018 on the Gulf Shores of Alabama as a “washback,” a term marine biologists use to describe a young sea turtle that washes ashore due to heavy winds and surf.
Snorkel had damage to the upper beak and both eyes due to a trauma that occurred before the washback event. As a result, she is blind, is missing her “nares” (nasal openings above the beak on a sea turtle) as well as her upper jaw.
She, too, was determined to be too permanently injured to be released back into the wild.
To learn more about the aquarium’s resident sea turtles as well as those being rehabilitated. click here.