On Sunday, 15 miles off shore, three tiny loggerhead sea turtles, each just about a year old, dove into the Gulf of Mexico as if that’s what they’d always done.
“All three of them looked like they had been there their whole lives,” said Allen McDowel, who stood on the back of the Sure Lure charter boat and released the turtles one at a time into the cool water.
View a slideshow from the release.
Watch a video of the release.
They measured between six to eight inches.
The first two went right into the floating sargassum weed line and paddled around a little.
The third just sped away.
Since late last year, the three turtles have been living at a rehabilitation center at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park on Okaloosa Island.
They were rescued after running into some trouble in their young lives and not making it to the relative safe harbor of the weed line, where they have plenty of shrimp and crab to feast on and are somewhat protected from predators.
“It went about as good as it could possibly go,” said McDowell, the Gulfarium's curator of fish and invertebrates, after returning to shore. “That was a fantastic turtle release. We had great weather this morning and the turtles were ready to go.”
He said as soon as the turtles got a whiff of the gulf air, they started increasing their activity in their crates as the boat made its way out to the weed line.
The owner of the Sure Lure, Pam Dana, and Captain Don Dineen, donated their time to ferry the turtles out for the release.
Every single species of sea turtle is either endangered or threatened.
While loggerheads are listed as endangered species in most parts of the world, in Northwest Florida they are listed as threatened, which is less critical, but means they are still in need of protection, he said.
The rehabilitation program, called Sea Turtle C.A.R.E, or Conserve, Act, Rehabilitate, and Educate, aims to get as many sea turtles back into the wild as possible.
“When you have populations down to these lower levels, every individual matters,” he said. “It’s very, very important they are out there and being part of the population. It’s critical for the long-term future of sea turtles.”
Two of the turtles came ashore on the beach between the Pensacola Beach pier and the Gulf Islands National Seashore, one in October and one in December.
Both had injuries on their flippers. The exact cause was unknown, but was likely some predator trying to eat them, McDowell said.
The third turtle was found in October on Okaloosa Island. It’s nest had been washed over during Hurricane Isaac and the turtle had suffered some developmental issues, including abnormalities in the shape of its flippers and shell.
Female sea turtles lay about 100 eggs per nest with the expectation one or two might make it to adulthood.
If they hatch, the turtles run a gauntlet from the nest to the weed lines where they spend the first several years of their lives, which can be up to 100 miles off shore.
As the hatchlings, just about three-inches long, come out of their nests and start to make their way to the water, they face a host of predators such as raccoons, cats and shore birds. Once they hit the water, almost any fish will give it a shot for a snack, McDowell said.
At the Gulfarium, the turtles were able to recover from their injuries quickly, but the center had to wait to release them again until the water warmed back up.
Now that the turtles are gone, the program’s nest is empty, but McDowell doesn’t expect that to last for long.
Next they will likely see some juvenile turtles struggling with new challenges as they start to make their way back closer to shore to look for larger food sources. The program is often called on to rehabilitate turtles that get tangled in fishing line.
“This is a yearlong process for us and something that we’re very passionate about,” he said.