Why Is Palm Beach County So Obsessed With Sea Turtle Releases
Camera phones poised, the adoring crowd awaited the star’s arrival, giddy with anticipation. His name was Willis – no, not Bruce – and he arrived on a recent sizzling, sunny morning strapped to a gurney before being lowered to the sand on Juno Beach. His fans beamed and applauded.
Most of one limb was missing, but Willis was undeniably charismatic. And maybe a bit haughty – never granting his followers so much as a sideways glance much less a nod of his regal head as he was carried toward the surf.
That’s because Willis is a young adult loggerhead sea turtle. After a rehab regimen at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, he was returning home. (In truth, Willis’ gender is unclear until he reaches full maturity. We’ll refer to him as “he” in honor of Bruce, and onetime Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis).
Willis was one of 10 or so sea turtles that are publicly released by Loggerhead Marinelife every year. And no offense to Willis, but the others draw rapturous crowds too.
Florida generally, and Palm Beach County and Jupiter particularly, are smitten with sea turtles. With more than 86,000 registrations, the sea turtle license plate is tops among 24 specialty plates statewide in the environmental/wildlife category. This, despite competition from other beloved critters such as manatees and dolphins. And Palm Beach County motorists have registered more than 7,500 sea turtle plates – far more than in any of Florida’s other 66 counties.
Why is there such fervent interest in sea turtle releases that hundreds of people vie for parking spots and sweat on a steamy beach for an event that’s over in a matter of minutes?
“That is a mystery. I can’t explain it,” said Leanne Welch, manager at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, which mends ailing sea turtles and oversees a handful of public releases a year. “We’ve had as many as 1,200 people.”
Welch noted that sea turtle devotees realize that the ancient reptiles cope with a plethora of perils courtesy of humans, such as strikes from boats and ships, entanglement in fishing nets and swallowing plastics and fish hooks littering the ocean.
“They’ve been swimming around almost unchanged for more than 100 million years, and now we’re impacting them,” Welch said. “People are really invested. We have families come once a month to check on an [ailing] turtle.”
When Gumbo Limbo live-streams a release on Facebook, she added, viewers from around the world respond.
“It’s always a success story. It’s a rare opportunity. It’s kind of magical.”
Public releases educate the public about ocean conservation and the plight of the reptiles, all of whom are endangered or threatened, rescue facility officials say. Many more healed sea turtle patients are released privately.
Part of the public appeal is that there are only a handful of working sea turtle hospitals in the world.
“For our guests and students who get to observe a sea turtle release, it offers a true celebration of success – our team of staff, volunteers and supporters are able to celebrate the rehabilitation journey of the sea turtle patients,” said Amanda E. Moore, Loggerhead Marinelife’s senior manager of integrated marketing.
When the public observes a release, it offers them hope that the center’s efforts are contributing to the sea turtles’ protection, Moore said. And, she added, “there is something incredibly moving about this experience.”
At the Turtle Hospital in Marathon in the Florida Keys, a mix of locals and tourists come out to watch when there is a public release. “They realize what humans are doing to the animals. It opens their eyes that we need to be better conservationists,” said Christine Watt, an educator at the facility housed in a former motel.
Most tourists come from places where there are no sea turtles, and are fascinated to see them, Watt said. “They are a majestic animal.”
Former president Jimmy Carter and famous zookeeper and conservationist Jack Hanna are among those who have quietly helped release rehabilitated turtles at the Turtle Hospital, Watt said.
Sea turtle staffers take pains to make their patients’ return to the sea go smoothly. Gumbo Limbo, for instance, does no weekend releases, because of increased boat traffic. Facilities also restrict where the public can view the events. Even so, there can be an occasional hiccup.
In 2016, Loggerhead Marinelife had a rare public release of five animals at once. To the amusement of spectators, two of them turned around and tried to return to the beach. One of them persisted in lumbering away from the water, even after it was pointed in the right direction.
“Finally, our rehab staff and volunteers carried the turtle down to the ocean,” Moore said.
The morning of Willis’ release, Loggerhead’s parking lots were full and spectators were allowed to park on the grass along State Road A1A. Police were on hand to help.
Ashley Smith drove all the way from Wellington with her two young children. “I like to show them that they get better and go home,” she said.
Valeria Baldocchi lived in Jupiter as a child but never saw a sea turtle release. She now lives with her boyfriend, Pete Lyons, in London and both were waiting for Willis to appear.
“I came here because they’ve taken an animal that’s been injured and helped it, whereas in other countries it might be discarded,” Baldocchi said. “It’s a hopeful sight.”
Willis was found near FPL’s St. Lucie nuclear plant, weighted down by barnacles and saltwater leeches attached to his shell. Most of his right rear flipper was gone. He was a bit underweight and undernourished at 65 pounds.
After 10 weeks of sea-turtle TLC, he got healthy again and weighed a robust 72 pounds. If Willis survives to adulthood, he’ll grow to 200 pounds or more.
As he drew closer to the ocean like a potentate held aloft by his attendants, Willis began wildly flapping his flippers, like a windup toy gone amok. Once lowered to the sand, he hesitated, perhaps daunted by three-foot waves crashing near the shore. He turned to the right and assessed some spectators for the first time. Then he plodded into the surf to the sound of applause and cheers, heading resolutely toward an uncertain future.
“This is worse than sending your kid to college,” one woman declared tearfully.
Her friend, Debbie Nicotera, was visiting the area before classes began in Waterville, New York, where she teaches special education students. Nicotera wept as she watched Willis disappear into the surf.
“He’s starting out with a little bit of a challenge,” she said, alluding to his missing flipper, “so I’m rooting for him. This is making me feel good. It restores your faith in humanity when people come together.”