After rehabilitation stints at facilities in New England, volunteers and staff from the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute released three sea turtles into the Atlantic Ocean June 29 at Tower Road south of Dewey Beach.
MERR Executive Director Suzanne Thurman said the turtles — a loggerhead and two Kemp’s ridleys — came from the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., and the New York Marine Rescue Center of Riverhead, N.Y. She didn’t know the exact reason the turtles had spent time rehabilitating, but theorized it was related to cold-stunning, which, she said, is a condition when sea turtles become very weak and inactive from exposure to cold temperatures.
Cold-stunning affects hundreds or thousands of turtles off the coast of northern New England every year, said Thurman.
“The other facilities did the hard work of rehabbing the turtles. Today, we just get to do the fun part of releasing them back into the ocean,” said Thurman.
MERR’s services for the live turtle releases are offered, but aren't often taken up, said Thurman. This one was about two weeks in the making, she said.
Loggerheads and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are federally listed threatened species. The Kemp’s ridley is the smallest sea turtle in the world.
On the morning of the release, a crew from MERR left at 6:30 a.m. to meet representatives from the two other aquariums at a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. There was a quick exchange before they headed back.
MERR doesn’t have the facilities to keep the turtles for a long time, so it’s a transportation job and then a release, said Thurman. It takes a little while to make the drive because there are stops along the way to moisten the turtles’ eyes and just generally make sure they’re doing fine, said Thurman.
MERR staff and volunteers didn’t waste any time when the turtles arrived. Thurman opened the three boxes to make sure they had survived the ride unscathed. Then, teams of two volunteers each grabbed a box and carried them to the designated launching spot just north of the state park boundary. The crew huddled for a second, then the action began. The turtles were put in a kiddy pool to get acclimated to water, carried carefully to the ocean, then walked out past the breakers. The operation to get all three turtles in the water took about 10 minutes.
Jessica Meyer, a MERR stranding technician, was part of the transportation team and carried Poseidon, a Kemp’s ridley turtle, to the water.
“It’s been a long day, but it’s been worth it,” she said. “It’s so incredible.”
Oriana Ballotta, a summer intern for MERR, carried Spunky, the other Kemp’s ridley. The smile on her face on the walk to the water said it all, but afterward, she put it into words.
“This is all I’ve wanted to do since I was a little girl. Amazing,” she said.
Oftentimes, MERR’s only interaction with sea turtles is when they’ve washed ashore because they’re dead.
After the release, Rob Rector, MERR board member, said it was terrific to see turtles alive this time.
“When the crates were open in the van, someone said it smelled like turtles, which was great, because most of the time it smells like death and decay when we’re dealing with them,” he said.
MERR contact information
If someone comes across a turtle or other marine wildlife, the best thing to do is to keep a distance and report sightings to MERR via a 24-hour reporting hotline, 302-228-5029. The stranding specialists from MERR will evaluate the animal for any signs of injury or illness, and will provide rescue if needed. In the case of a healthy, resting animal, MERR will set up a watch throughout the day to help it remain undisturbed.
For more information, go to merrinstitute.org.