By DINA ARÉVALO
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
For Sea Turtle, Inc. volunteer Debra Cadena, her first opportunity to release a sea turtle into the Laguna Madre was an especially poignant moment. She smiled as she held her turtle, Clifford, up for the children who were watching from the railing of the Double Sunshine’s upper deck before kneeling to set the turtle free in the water. Afterwards, another volunteer hugged Cadena as she sat on a bench at the back of the boat wiping tears from her eyes.
Gathering herself, she explained she had named the rehabilitated turtle Clifford after her late father, who died about five years ago. “When he passed, I didn’t get to say goodbye,” she said. “This (release) was a double meaning. I got to say goodbye,” she said.
The turtle, a juvenile Atlantic green sea turtle, was one of seven released by staff and volunteers from Sea Turtle, Inc., a rescue group that takes in injured or ill turtles and rehabilitates them before returning them to the wild. Each of the turtles released Wednesday were juveniles under five years old, said staff member Kat Lillie. Some of them had only been held for a few weeks. “A couple had boat strike wounds, a couple got caught in nets,” Lillie said. One turtle had been discovered by a shrimper at the bottom of his net. He turned the entire net inside out to rescue the turtle, said one volunteer as the turtle was carried around the deck for passengers to see.
Clifford had been at the rescue the longest — since November 2014 — healing from an injury that left a long gash down his shell. Staff think the wound was created by a boat propeller, said Cadena. Staff at the rescue used a novel approach to treat the injury, she said. “They pour honey into it. It keeps infection out,” she said, adding that the honey remains in the wound even while the turtle stays submerged in seawater.
Dozens of people showed up for the release, which was advertised on Facebook and elsewhere online. The crowd, as well as the turtles, were separated onto two boats which caravanned out from Sea Ranch Marina just as the sun was setting behind a haze of silver clouds and a light fog.
Eli Benson, of Beeville, sat on a bench on the upper deck of the Double Sunshine while his three-year-old daughter, Katherine stood on his lap. With a calm but serious expression on her face, Katherine quietly looked around as volunteers walked around with the turtles. “She’s obsessed with turtles,” Benson said of his daughter. They came to watch the release after seeing an announcement on Facebook, he said.
Currently, Sea Turtle, Inc. still has another five turtles undergoing rehabilitation, said Lillie. Releases are held several times a year as they are needed, she said. Last year, the rescue returned approximately 300 Atlantic green turtles to the water. The staff and volunteers are also gearing up for the spring nesting season.
Every year, beginning in April, hundreds of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles come ashore on South Padre Island to lay their eggs all along the beach. The Island is the only place in the country where the endangered turtle nests. Others nest along the coast in northern Mexico. Hatchlings begin to emerge from their nests beginning in June or July, Lillie said. Just over 2,000 hatchlings were released by Sea Turtle, Inc. last year, she said.
All the turtles, no matter the species, are cared for by just seven staff members and a cadre of over 150 volunteers who comb the beach looking for nests in the spring, and cold-stunned turtles during winter. For Cadena, who has been volunteering for a year, she says there’s a close connection among volunteers. “It’s like family. Everyone becomes your family,” she said.
Lillie encourages anyone who sees a sick or nesting turtle to report it to Sea Turtle, Inc. by calling (956)761-4511.
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