BERLIN – “There they go!”
While it wasn’t much of a race the crowd cheered excitedly as the National Aquarium released a dozen sea turtles at Assateague Island National Seashore Thursday. The release, which coincided with World Sea Turtle Day, also marked the 25th anniversary of the National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program. Since 1991, the program has rescued, treated and released more than 160 animals, many of them along the Maryland coast.
“It’s always a great feeling when you can return these animals to their natural habitat,” said Jennifer Dittmar, manager of the animal rescue program.
Thursday’s release, which took place at the north end of Assateague Island, featured 10 rehabilitated Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles from the Pittsburgh Zoo and two rehabbed green sea turtles. Dittmar said all of the turtles had suffered from cold stunning, the state turtles enter when they’re exposed to cold water suddenly.
“It causes a low body temperature and then crashes their immune system,” Dittmar said.
The green turtles, named Beachcomber and Hardhead, both arrived at the National Aquarium in November after being rescued from area beaches. Hardhead arrived with a low body temperature, broken ribs and a tear in his lungs. Beachcomber had a blood infection and kidney problems.
After several months of recuperation however the green turtles were cleared for release. To celebrate World Sea Turtle Day and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Turtle Week, officials decided to combine their release with the release of the 10 Kemp’s Ridley turtles. Dittmar said mid-June was the ideal time to release turtles because the water had warmed to the appropriate temperature.
“This is the beginning of the sea turtle season locally,” she said.
Dittmar said all of the turtles were juveniles, likely between the ages of three and seven, and so were not full grown. The Kemp’s Ridley turtles, which are the smallest variety of sea turtle, should mature to around 60 pounds. The green sea turtles are immense and mature to about 500 pounds.
In spite of rain, Thursday’s release went smoothly for the turtles, which slowly slid down the beach into the ocean in front of a crowd of onlookers.
Dittmar said now that they were back in the ocean, the turtles could stay in the area or travel north as far as Cape Cod before heading south for the winter.
While folks at Assateague celebrated the sea turtle by watching the rehabbed animals return to the wild, a local girl marked World Sea Turtle Day by spending it in Washington D.C. Stephen Decatur High School student Sophia Edens, 16, joined Oceana to urge President Obama to do more for endangered sea turtles. Edens was one of several children with Oceana, One More Generation and Lilimar as they delivered more than 12,000 letters and drawings from kids across the country asking politicians to protect turtles from shrimp trawlers. Oceana wants to see the use of Turtle Excluder Devices—metal gates inserted into shrimp nets that allow turtles to escape—mandated in the United States.