If you live along the coast, you know that one of the major seasons of the year, aside from hurricane season, is sea turtle nesting season, May 1-Oct. 31. These large, lumbering creatures emerge from the depths in order to return to the same beach where they were hatched, in order to deposit hundreds of eggs. Most of the time, nature takes its course, and things go as smoothly as can be expected. Sometimes, however, mankind has to step in and try to help the process along.
On Wednesday, Sept. 11, SeaWorld Orlando’s Animal Rescue Team returned 75 sea turtle hatchlings to waters off Florida’s east coast today. Ten green, three hawksbills, 61 loggerheads and one leatherback were transported by the Republic VII to a “weed line” about 14 miles offshore Jupiter, Fla.
A weed line is made up of sargassum sea weed grass and acts as protection and a source of food for the young turtles during the first two years of life.
Three of the 74 hatchlings had been receiving care at SeaWorld Orlando for the past several months. These hawksbill hatchlings were found by beachcombers and had likely been washed on shore due to harsh sea conditions. SeaWorld’s Animal Care Team assisted in providing medical and rehabilitative care, including feeding assistance, antibiotic treatment and radiographs, prior to today’s return.
Other juvenile turtles being returned today:
· Nineteen hatchlings – 18 loggerheads and one leatherback – had been receiving care at the Volusia County Marine Science Center. The rare leatherback hatchling was brought to the facility after being found near New Smyrna Beach, Fla., with a severe curvature and inability to reach the sea on its own. The center provided medical care, including fluid injections and feeding assistance, for a few weeks until it was healthy enough to swim properly. Two of the eighteen loggerheads were brought in after being washed back to shore and the rest were newly hatched turtles that never made it back to the water on their own.
· Ten green and forty three loggerhead hatchlings had been receiving care at the Loggerhead Marine Life Center. These young turtles never made it to the water after hatching and were recovered by beachcombers near Juno, Fla.
One by one, each turtle was carefully placed in the water near the sargassum sea weed line. Young turtles spend the two years of their life in the weed line. Jellyfish could be seen near the weed line, which are a main source of food for leatherbacks and can be a secondary source of food for other sea turtles as well.
Each turtle’s health was evaluated and all were medically cleared prior to today’s return.
In collaboration with the government and other members of accredited stranding networks, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment operates one of the world’s most respected programs to rescue ill and injured marine animals, with the goal to rehabilitate and return to the waters. SeaWorld animal experts have helped more than 22,000 animals in need - ill, injured, orphaned and abandoned - for more than four decades. So far this year, SeaWorld Orlando has rescued 52 turtles and returned 47, not including today’s return.
While those sea turtles were lucky enough to be returned, the rescue and rehabilitation of other turtles goes on at facilities across the state. At The Aquarium at Mote in Sarasota, the days are busy at the Hatchling Hospital within Mote’s public outreach facility.
“This year we have admitted more hatchlings into our critical care hospital than at any other time since I joined Mote four years ago,” said Holly West, Sea Turtle Care Coordinator at Mote. “That’s a lot of little mouths to feed.”
Currently, 63 rescued hatchlings — mainly loggerheads along with a small number of greens — are receiving care designed to help them heal and build up their strength so Mote can return them to sea. Hatchlings in the hospital will be released offshore by boat once they have healed and can dive and feed on their own.
The hatchlings are from multiple Southwest Florida beaches, and many were recovered from nests damaged by predators such as raccoons and armadillos. Others lost their way to sea, or disoriented, and wandered into swimming pools, storm drains or other dangerous situations. Normally, hatchlings follow the brightest horizon to find the sea, but artificial lights visible from the beach and flashlights or lanterns on the beach can lure them away from the surf and into harm’s way.
Visitors in The Aquarium at Mote may see hatchlings inside the exhibit “Sea Turtles: Ancient Survivors.” Guests might even glimpse Mote staff weighing, measuring and checking hatchlings for injuries through a special viewing window added in 2012 thanks to a generous donation from the Kukanza family.
Mote has monitored sea turtle nesting for 31 years from Longboat through Venice — and it’s only through long-term monitoring programs like this that we can understand overall population trends for sea turtles. That’s because they are long-lived species that take decades to mature. For example, it will take about 30 years for the hatchlings born on our beaches this year to return to nest as adults.
“We’re very happy that green sea turtles broke their 31-year record this summer, that loggerheads had another outstanding season and that our local numbers seem to be part of a broader upswing in the southeastern U.S.” said Kristen Mazzarella, manager of Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program. “While these increases might have many causes, it’s exciting to consider how our local conservation and education efforts may be helping with this positive change.”
Sea turtles are protected under federal law and any harassment or interference with a sea turtle, living or dead, is subject to penalty. If you witness anyone disturbing a turtle or find an injured or disoriented hatchling or adult, please notify agents with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922), the local sheriff’s department, and/or Mote Marine Laboratory’s Sea Turtle Program at 388-4331. If you find a dead or injured sea turtle contact Mote’s Stranding Investigations Program at 988-0212.
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