Georgia just made history with the state's largest-ever release of endangered sea turtles

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle is released into the ocean

Earlier this week, 34 turtles made history in the state of Georgia.

On Wednesday, conservationists and marine biologists marked their largest sea turtle release on state record, as 33 Kemp’s ridley turtles and one green sea turtle were released off of Jekyll Island.

But these turtles aren’t native Southerners; they were brought from a number of aquariums up north: New England Aquarium and the New York Marine Rescue Center in New York, Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, and Atlantic Marine Conservation Society in Boston.

The New England Aquarium called it a “remarkable cross-organization collaboration,” featuring the help of Turtles Fly Too, an organization that transports endangered sea turtles to new locations.

Volunteers unload a truck full of boxes containing sea turtles at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center
Photo courtesy of Turtles Fly Too

These 34 turtles had previously spent the past few months at these aquariums, undergoing care for hypothermia-related conditions, like pneumonia, dehydration, and trauma, according to a press release from the New England Aquarium.

This happens every fall and winter, as hundreds of cold-stunned sea turtles — many of which are endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles — wash up on the beaches of Cape Cod

With rapidly changing temperatures, many turtles struggle to escape Cape Cod Bay before succumbing to hypothermia. Fortunately, turtle-loving staff and volunteers patrol these beaches to help transport stranded turtles to aquariums, taking them in for months of rehab. 

“It was so rewarding to have this group of sea turtles released on Jekyll Island after being nursed back to health by the New England Aquarium and our partner organizations,” Adam Kennedy, director of rescue and rehabilitation at the New England Aquarium, said in a statement.

“These turtles that stranded late last year have certainly received wonderful care and are fully recovered as we send them back home.” 

Two Kemp's ridley sea turtles sit in cardboard boxes on a sandy beach
Photo courtesy of Turtles Fly Too

Eleven of the turtles came from the New England Aquarium, including some crowd favorites named Mulberry, Mayflower, and Delphinium. 

The effort was coordinated by the Georgia Sea Turtle Center at Jekyll Island. Additionally, dozens of staff members from the agencies involved came to support the project and cheer on the turtles as they were carried into the warm ocean waters. 

“Our waters are just now warm enough that we can release animals,” Rachel Overmeyer, the rehabilitation program manager at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center told WJCL News

“Releases are just so special because it's what we put our blood, sweat and tears into, and it's what we do every day. It is what we work for. So to be able to see them released is really exciting.”

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle peaks its nose out of a cardboard box in Georgia
Photo courtesy of Turtles Fly Too

Not only is it exciting to see a crew of turtles return to their rightful home under the sea, but it’s exciting because the Kemp’s ridley turtle is the most endangered turtle species in the world, according to Oceana. 

“The rehabilitation and release of just one critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle can have a huge impact on the population,” said Sarah Callan, manager of Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program, in a statement. “We are grateful to play a part in the critical conservation efforts for this species.”

In addition to this annual effort to rescue, rehabilitate, and release these rare reptiles, the New England Aquarium, the National Aquarium, and the South Carolina Aquarium are working with a number of congressional representatives on a bipartisan bill called the Sea Turtle Rescue Assistance Act

“While all six species of sea turtles found in the U.S. are protected under the Endangered Species Act, there is little federal support directly available to organizations engaged in conservation efforts,” a press release from the New England Aquarium explained. 

“The bill would help institutions continue to provide the rescue, rehabilitation, and research needed to help these animals.”

Two women release a sea turtle into the ocean
Photo courtesy of Turtles Fly Too

While these 34 turtles are emblematic of a major victory off of Georgia’s shores, experts hope they are also indicative of a more proactive future for sea turtles across the country.

Michelle Kaylor, director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center said: “Through collaborative efforts, we can ensure the successful rehabilitation and return of these magnificent creatures to their natural habitats, safeguarding their future for generations to come.”

Header image courtesy of Turtles Fly Too

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