How to Release a Turtle

They don’t fetch. They don’t play Frisbee. They don’t curl up on your lap and purr. But here in Port Aransas, we still love our sea turtles. It pains us to learn when they’ve been hurt and we’re grateful for the work of the Animal Rehabilitation Keep that nurses them back to health.

Labor Day turtle releaseWhen possible, they’re released back into the wild. A public turtle release is always a well-attended event. Scores of people report to the release location, usually but not always near Mile Marker 35 on the beach. Cameras at the ready, onlookers line up along both sides of the path that volunteers have cleared for the turtles. ARK volunteers display the turtles so everyone can get a good look, then set them on the sand. Sometimes the turtles need a little nudge to get them headed toward the water. Everyone jokes that they’ve been getting such good treatment at the ARK, they don’t want to leave. But finally they do enter the surf and everyone cheers. Sometimes, volunteers have ARK Tee-shirts to sell which not only make fine souvenirs but also raise a little money to support the rehabilitation efforts.

And those efforts are considerable. It takes many staff members and volunteers to feed the turtles and maintain their tanks. Some turtles are far too injured ever to be released and so are permanent ARK residents. For example, there are currently several sea turtles who are missing too many limbs to have a chance of survival in the ocean.

Whenever possible, though, the animals are returned to their native habitat. There was one such release at 10 a.m. on Labor Day. I suspected there was more to a turtle release than just trucking the animals to the beach and tossing them onto the sand. ARK Director Tony Amos invited me to come watch what goes into a turtle release.

Animal Rehabilitation KeepSo at 8 a.m., I reported to the ARK headquarters at the University of Texas Marine Sciences Institute at Cotter Street and Channel View Drive. Tony had just gotten a call about an injured bird and headed off to see if he could take care of that before the release. Meanwhile volunteer John Ray arrived and set about following Tony’s instructions to “move the ducks.” The ARK handles not only sea turtles, land turtles and tortoises, but also birds, especially aquatic birds. So there are not only turtle tanks but aviaries with injured laughing gulls, pelicans, owls and even two gannets.

The release had originally been slated for the Saturday of the Labor Day weekend, but because of high tides, got rescheduled for Labor Day itself. Because of the rescheduling, some of the expected volunteers weren’t available, but Ken Dalton and staffer Amanda Terry showed up to help.

In the ARK lab

Then I got a quick tour of the turtle operation, from the large outdoor tanks to the smaller indoor tanks. Most of the turtles had already been prepped for release but there were still a couple that needed attention. They were brought upstairs to be weighed, measured and tagged. Ken struggle a bit with one turtle that did not want to stay on the scale, but Ken Ken gave the turtle a little neck rub and got him settled down.Video: In the ARK turtle lab

Animal Rehabilitation KeepTony took a biopsy and a DNA sample. Metal tags were put on the left rear and front flippers, which is protocol. That way when the turtles arrive at distant shores, other scientists know where to look for the tags. One turtle was missing its left front flipper. That wasn’t going to keep it from being released but it did mean that the tag would have to go on the right flipper instead.

Information about the biopsy, DNA and tags is handwritten in a log and the information later transferred to computer databases. The National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the information to track the animals’ movement. Turtles released here can really travel, the NOAA’s Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network has found them in Galveston, Florida and Mexico.

The turtles were then photographed, top and bottom.

As we headed for the outdoor tanks, Guy Davis, another volunteer arrived. After everyone teased him about the scar on his knee from a love bite one of the turtles had given him, Amanda got busy draining the outdoor tanks so the turtles could be moved to smaller lighter tubs for transport. Transferring the animals was no easy task as “Josh” weighed about 80 pounds and “Angel” weighed twice that.

While the gate was open so that the pickup that would take the turtles to the beach could back in, some pelicans saw their chance to escape. They made a break for it and headed toward the channel. There was a little Keystone Kops-style action while everyone ran around herding the pelicans back to their outdoor pen but finally it was time to head to the beach and the dramatic part of the morning — releasing the turtles into the sea.

A few weeks later, smaller turtles were released into the channel near the ARK during the Wings Over Port Aransas Pirate Island event. This weekend-long party was a fundraiser of the Parrot Heads of Port Aransas. The goal was $8,000 — enough to fund a cover for the outdoor tank that houses Barnacle Bill, a loggerhead sea turtle who is a permanent ARK resident because he’s missing both front flippers. At this writing, proceeds were still being recorded, but at $9200 and counting, the club not only met but exceeded its goal.

Visit the ARK Web site to find out how to donate or become a volunteer or take a virtual tour of the Marine Sciences Institute, including the ARK. I’ll see you there.

2 Responses to How to Release a Turtle

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