“I thought this was incredible, to get to see them go back to their homes. I think they're going to make it.”
DESTIN — Terra Throgmorton held a wiggly green sea turtle named Solo in her hands Thursday morning as she headed toward the Gulf of Mexico.
The juvenile turtle, which had spent the last several weeks at the Gulfarium’s CARE center being rehabilitated after she was found cold stunned in Choctawhatchee Bay, was finally headed home. Throgmorton, a senior aquarist at the Gulfarium who had played an integral part in Solo’s rehabilitation, was ready to set her free.
The excitement was palpable, not just from Solo’s constantly moving flippers the closer she got to the Gulf of Mexico, but also from the cheers of the hundreds of people gathered to watch her be released.
But when Throgmorton finally arrived at the water’s edge and set Solo free, it appeared the turtle wasn’t quite ready to return home just yet.
“Go free, Solo!” a woman in the crowd yelled, but Solo turned around and swam back toward Throgmorton. Almost as if to say goodbye.
After a few more seconds, Solo the sea turtle turned back around and swam away, heading to her home in deeper waters. The crowd erupted in cheers and Throgmorton smiled and waved goodbye.
Solo was the first of nine sea turtles to be released by the Gulfarium CARE Center on Thursday morning, seven of which were rescued in recent weeks from a mass “cold stunning” event in Choctawhatchee Bay waters. Solo, Yoda, Chewie, Boba, Ren, B.B. and Padme — all named after popular “Star Wars” characters — were picked up by wildlife officials after they were found lethargic and floating close to the surface of the water, cold stunned from the recent low temperatures.
Two more sea turtles, a juvenile green sea turtle named Kudzu and an adult Loggerhead named Seadar, had both been found injured. Kudzu was hooked at the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier and Seadar was found with hooks, a lead weight and fishing line in her system.
Meredith Horn, director of marketing and communications at Gulfarium, said staff coordinated with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission throughout the rehabilitation process. Thursday was chosen as a day to release the turtles because of sunny skies and a Gulf water temperature of 58 degrees.
“We’re thrilled to be here today, and seeing the crowd like this out here is just amazing,” Horn said. “CARE is an acronym for ‘Conserve, Act, Rehabilitate and Educate,’ and this is a great opportunity to not only educate the public through awareness on what these sea turtles are facing, but we hope these messages and these stories continue to be shared throughout the community and throughout the Emerald Coast.”
After Solo, the remaining turtles were released one by one by different staff members who had cared for them at Gulfarium. Some hesitated in the water for a little bit before swimming away, while some made a mad dash to deeper waters. Seadar, the largest of the bunch, was the last to be released. The crowd “oohed and ahhed” as she was carried by two trainers to the edge of the surf, then let out a collective cheer as she disappeared into the horizon of the Gulf of Mexico.
Kay McCarthy, Lib Blackwell and Mary Brehm, three snowbirds from Missouri, Tennessee and Nebraska, respectively, put on their puffy winter coats and brought their foldable chairs for a front-row seat to the sea turtle release. All three women said it was their first time going to such an event.
“It’s fantastic, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” McCarthy said. “It’s absolutely beautiful today, and it’s great to see the turtles healthy and anxious to get back in the water.”
“And to see all the dedicated people who made it happen and the people who came here to support the turtles,” Blackwell added. “That’s just what makes Destin so great.”
LeighAnn Holmes, who lives in Santa Rosa Beach, said she came to the release because she was a “lover of turtles” and even got to see some hatch earlier this year.
“I love to see them swim and I love seeing them once they’re rehabilitated,” she said. “I thought this was incredible, to get to see them go back to their homes. I think they’re going to make it.”