Return to the big blue: a sea turtle’s release from rehab

Written by Miranda S. Altice

The adrenaline is still pulsing through my veins, making my hands tremble and my heart pound. A perma-grin is smeared on my face, “Probably for forever,” I had said earlier.

Thinking back from just an hour before, I can still feel Evergreen’s smooth, scaley flipper flapping relentlessly against my arms…

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The day of the release! Miranda holds Evergreen moments before releasing him back into the sea

“We’re almost there, buddy,” I coo, hoping he can understand my human words, or at least the excitement radiating from my movements. My one hand grips his precentral scute just above his neck, while my other fingertips try to steady along the sharp postcentral scutes jutting out from above his flicking tail. For a split second, I pray to the turtle Gods to keep him from taking a crap, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to smear it off my hand and shoes.

Methodical and smooth so as not too literally scare it out of him, I walk towards the dunes from the rescue truck. His huge, almond-shaped eyes look first at me, then at the scene around him: Two long lines of people cheering, hugging the aisle like they’re sending off newlyweds on their new adventure. Camera phones clicking away while children point and say, “Look! There’s the other turtle!” The rest of the blue-shirted volunteers are also there, holding five of his reptilian friends he’s been with throughout his healing journey.

The turtles hear the ocean and smell the low tide. They’ve come a long, long way in their rehabilitation. From the moment they washed ashore, and the dedicated volunteers brought them to the hospital, to the moment each one of us – at our own times – breathed, “It’s going to be ok.” To the cut-up squid meals, the swabbing’s of Betadine, the daily tub cleanings, the Monday weigh-ins, the near-death experiences, the coos, the encouraging words… it’s come to this moment.

This is his homecoming, back to the sea where he belongs. I can’t help but wonder as he tries to urge me forward with his overwhelming flapping, where would he be if not for us?

Most likely dead, because at first, we thought he was.

Animal rescue centres are not for the faint of heart. From cleaning bacteria-infected wounds filled with puss and blood, to gently unwrapping fishing line embedded into their skin. Try prying a bait hook from one’s eye socket or inside the throat, or washing away the poo or pulling out plastic wrappings and balloons he’s been trying to excrete for who-knows-how-long.

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Miranda hard at work scrubbing Evergreen’s shell during his rehabilitation at the centre

There is never a dull moment. The most gruesome parts, however, usually are when the animals first come in – and many times we have no idea what the problem is. The animals are weak, hungry, constipated, and often covered in barnacles and algae. Some are so still for weeks that the only way we know she’s still alive is from a small glint in the eye and confirmation from the vet.

It’s afterwards, during the rehabilitation process that you can slow down a little more; to inspect its recovery and make notes for data-keeping. You get to know their personalities – who gets grumpy if she doesn’t get enough squid, who likes when their carapace gets scrubbed with a toothbrush, who absolutely hates it, and who loves floating above the bubbling filtration devices.

Some turtles seem to bond more with certain volunteers, while others may be so social that they’re happy to see anyone. Although we are schooled to keep from humanizing them, it’s practically impossible not to form some bond. It takes one person to change someone’s life, but this small, local rescue centre has saved the lives of countless pelicans, terns, sea snakes, sea turtles, and honestly, the emotional stabilities of many of the volunteers.

Back on the beach, my fellow sea turtle whisperers and I wade out into the breakers. I could feel Evergreen’s excitement and adrenaline peaking, as though swimming through the air would get him into the sea faster. Saltwater splashed up to our waists, stinging cuts on my legs I didn’t realize I had. The waves kept pushing us back, then pulling us in.

I’ve never seen Evergreen, or Roxy, Artie, Lefty, or Slappy so alive. So eager! As we counted down from three, we hovered them just inches above the surf. Finally, in what my memory recalls in slow motion, I gently set Evergreen’s body into the clear, blue surf. He was like a wind-up toy, beating his flippers frantically in the air, his eyes practically bulging out of his sockets in anticipation.

Home! Home is right here, he seemed to say.

As I let go of his sides, I felt him melt into the water as though breathing a sigh of relief. I whispered an emotional good luck, buddy, but before I could blink, he disappeared. Gone. Back home to the sea. All of them, one by one, until they were each tucked safely into their salty home. I scanned the surf, like a mother studying the playground for her child. But they had already slipped back into the puzzle, like a missing piece filling the void while leaving their sea turtle energy imprinted on our terrestrial memories.

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‘Venice’ one of the sick turtles at the centre, whatever she is suffering from is likely internal as she appears in perfect health on the outside

There’s always a split second of sadness after a release – the cutting of the metaphorical umbilical cord, the flash of memories at the hospital: feeding, medicating, worrying, bonding. And that mothering worry of what will happen to them once they’re gone. The ocean is so vast, so filled with danger: sharks, boats, deflated balloons and plastic bags.

My empathetic self asks, How will he know where to go? Will he have friends? Will he remember me and all we did for him? Will he stay close to his rehab buddies? My marine scientist side knows better. He’s home, he’s instinctual, and I need to trust that. The final release makes it all worth it. This is the reason why we rescue: to make them stronger and healthier than we found them. To return to the big blue sea.

Miranda Altice is a science writer based in the Far North Coast of New South Wales, Australia. Her articles have been featured in publications such as Earth Island Journal and the Sierra Club. She’s a Florida-native who received her marine biology and journalism degrees at Indian River State College and Jacksonville University. Meanwhile, she volunteers at the local sea turtle hospital and mentally devours anything in relation to ichthyology, marine taxonomy, and genetics. You can find her on Twitter (@MirandaSAltice) and LinkedIn here or visit her website here.

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