Rare sea turtles find their way to the ocean slowly, but surely

Frank Hardy, one of two Kemp's Ridley turtles released Wednesday, made his way down the beach to the ocean at Long Point with a crowd of delighted onlookers cheering him on. — Photo by Christy Aumer

About 75 people gathered on the warm sand at Long Point in West Tisbury Wednesday afternoon as two Kemp’s Ridley turtles, among the world’s most endangered sea turtles, entered the ocean for the first time in approximately eight months. The crowd included Camp Jabberwocky campers and counselors, New England Aquarium staff and volunteers, and several beachgoers.

The turtles were found stranded on Cape Cod late last year suffering from hypothermia. They have been living in tanks at the New England Aquarium in Boston. On Wednesday, they returned to the Atlantic Ocean from the Trustees of Reservations Long Point Wildlife Refuge in West Tisbury, outfitted with tracking devices. They are members of the last remaining group, from a record 242 live sea turtles that washed up last November and December.

Aquarium volunteers Michael O’Neill and Maurice Reinrobe lifted the turtles, called Frank Hardy and Benton Wesley, out of their crates into the fresh air with gloved hands, and walked around the crowd so onlookers could get a closer look at the rare sea creatures. Cries of “so cute” rose from the crowd as the kicking turtles, named after crime fiction characters, were shown off prior to being released.

“Smell of the ocean and ‘boom, boom, boom,'” New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said as the two turtles ventured out to sea. “It’s not the tank water at the aquarium any more.”

Frank Hardy, named after one of the brother sleuths in Frank Dixon’s series for young people, didn’t think twice about entering the cold water, but Benton Wesley, named for a Patricia Cornwall character, slowly inched toward the salt water as the crowd shouted encouragement.

“I wasn’t worried,” Mr. LaCasse said about Benton’s late departure. “Sometimes they can sit out there for 15 minutes.”

A couple of minutes later, the turtles were no longer in sight, and the crowd had dispersed.

The Trustees of Reservations superintendent Chris Kennedy expects Long Point will be used again for such releases because it faces south to the open ocean. He said the last release was in the same area several years ago.

According to a press release, when they were found the two turtles had “very complex and chronic medical conditions beyond their hypothermia, including pneumonia, blood chemistry imbalances, kidney failure, fractures, and emaciation.”

Mr. LaCasse said they suffered from dehydration and body temperatures of about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It would be similar to you being bedridden for two months,” he said. “You’re immune system is very weak.”

New England Aquarium veterinarians and biologists worked with the sea turtles for eight months to prepare them to return to the sea. Experts say they hope to help rebuild these endangered populations, and with the help of tracking devices, they may learn more about the cold-blooded animals.

Each turtle was outfitted with a satellite tag glued to its shell. The small, plastic, electronic devices with antennas provide GPS coordinates and information about dive depths, lengths of time submerged, as well as water temperature for an average of six to eight months, before they fall off.

Experts said the data will be transmitted to an overhead satellite when the turtle comes to the surface to take a breath. The turtle’s journey can also be tracked online.

Mr. LaCasse said the tagging will help with research. “We can learn about the extent of their habitat and how they use it, where they’re going, what they’re doing,” he said.

Six turtles had been scheduled for release Wednesday, but a problem attaching satellite tags — an hour and a half procedure — postponed the release of four of them until later this month.