Family Travel

Kerry Egan



Sea turtles go home

Posted 6/21/2013 2:20:00 PM

The little boy scurried around on his hands and knees in the wet sand on the edge of the surf, tickling the ankles of his family around him. "Here I come!" he shouted. "I'm biting your feet!" The other children yelped and squealed and jumped around to stay out of his way.

"He's pretending to be a sea turtle," his mom said apologetically. "He's really excited."

But there was no need to apologize. The excitement was palpable and contagious as we stood with a few hundred other people at Beachwalker Park on Kiawah Island. We were waiting for the arrival of eight sea turtles who had been treated at the South Carolina Aquarium's Sea Turtle Hospital. After months of care, they were finally ready to be released back into the ocean.

Mary Frances, Jimmy, and I stood ankle deep in the water at the end of a long, sandy avenue that had been cordoned off. As a white van pulled onto the beach, a murmur arose from the crowd. In just a few minutes, well before we could see anything, we heard cheering from back by the dunes. The turtles had arrived.

I've never stood on a red carpet for a movie, but I imagine this might be a bit what it's like. Everyone craned their heads as the already-tanned, curly blond-haired lifeguard urged all of us wading in the water to stand back and make room for the stars to make their way down the runway.

The first sea turtle released was a juvenile loggerhead named North Island. He made his way, carried by two workers from the South Carolina Aquarium, and accompanied by a child holding a sign with his name. People applauded. They set him down at the edge of the ocean, and a few waves crashed over him. He didn't move.

"What's wrong, Mom? Is he OK?," the two kids asked as they pulled on my hand. It's hard not to get attached to something as adorable as a loggerhead turtle. But after a few moments, North began to waddle slowly towards the horizon. Once he was in water deep enough to swim, he took off straight ahead through the crashing waves, confident, it seemed, and eager to return home. (Am I anthropomorphizing here? Yes, I am, unabashedly and unapologetically.)

A woman from the aquarium waved to him as he swam away. Just before he hit the second row of breakers, he lifted his head from the water for a few seconds. Then he was off.

I'll admit: I teared up.

Next came seven juvenile Kemp's ridley turtles, the most endangered sea turtles in the world. These turtles, much smaller than the loggerhead, were released two at a time, and were carried close past the waiting crowd so people could get a good look at them. Some turtles stayed perfectly still as they were carried, but some of them flapped their fins, as if to wave at the crowds who waved at them.

Mary Frances's favorite turtle was Turbo. True to his name, he took off like a shot into the waves the moment he hit the sand, and was swimming away while his fellow releasee was still looking around. Jimmy's favorite was North. I liked Saint, who seemed so unsure of his return to the ocean, and kept turning around to go back up the beach. The aquarium staff had to keep picking him up to reorient towards the sea. He eventually found his way.

When it was all over and the last turtle swimming his way home, we set up a spot on the beach. The kids tried to bodysurf on the waves, and I swam out past the breakers to float. They kept calling to me, but I was nervous to let them come out so far, possibly past where they could stand. But the two of them kept coming out farther and farther. I had a sudden memory of something forgotten, of the day my father took me all the way out past the breakers for the first time as a little girl. I remembered the fearful thrill of diving through the waves and realizing I couldn't stand, and then the freedom of the entire blue ocean in front of me. So I waded back to them, held each of their hands and told them that when a wave starts to crash, they had to dive through it. Their heads bobbed up on the other side.

The South Carolina Aquarium releases turtles from the Sea Turtle Hospital as soon as the turtles are well enough to return to the sea. By law, the release has to happen within 10 days of the clean bill of health, so these events are not planned out far in advance. The best way to learn about a release is to sign up for the South Carolina Aquarium's Twitter feed, or to check its Facebook page. By all means, if you can go to a sea turtle release, do so. It's something you'll never forget.

Insider Tip: Stand in the water to watch the release -- you'll get the best view of the turtles swimming away -- so wear flip-flops.