Sea turtle released into the wild

June 30, 2008 4:58:32 AM PDT
Weighing 150 pounds and strong enough to require five men to wrestle her out of her saltwater tank, Dylan the sea turtle is ready to be set free after nine years in captivity and a final checkup by her veterinarian.

Dylan's release has been in the works for more than a year. The loggerhead sea turtle left her home at the Georgia Aquarium in May 2007 to live at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, where the staff could prepare her to live on her own.

The turtle's caretakers planned to drive Dylan to the beach Monday and turn her loose. If she heads into the ocean as planned, she won't be expected to return to land until she starts laying eggs about 20 years from now.

"She's as ready as she's going to be," Terry Norton, head veterinarian at the Sea Turtle Center, said Sunday after returning Dylan to her tank after an hour-long last physical exam. "She's definitely strong."

Humans have raised Dylan since she was found in August 1998 as a hatchling straggler on Jekyll Island's beach, left behind by her nest mates. She spent years at two nature centers here before moving to the Georgia Aquarium in November 2005.

After 18 months, Dylan began outgrowing her surroundings. She also began to grow restless, biting at the rocks in her exhibit and getting into a scuffle with Joey, the sea turtle with whom she shared it.

"We would dive in the exhibit and she would pay us a lot of attention, try to bite us," said Jeff Krenner, an aquarium biologist who worked closely with Dylan. "This is the first turtle the Georgia Aquarium has released to the wild. It's a great thing for Dylan to be able to go back to the sea."

Unlike most turtles rehabilitated at the Jekyll Island center, Dylan didn't have to recover from illness or injury. The biggest hurdle was teaching her to feed herself.

She was used to a mixture of ground fish, shrimp and squid frozen into blocks of ice. The first time a live blue crab was dropped into her tank at the Sea Turtle Center, she recoiled and swam to the other side of her tank.

Norton said the staff began feeding Dylan whole crabs that had been frozen to get her used to breaking their shells. Over time, she learned to kill and eat live crabs.

"Now, she's a voracious eater," Norton said. "She knows they're not going to hurt her."

Loggerhead sea turtles like Dylan are classified as a threatened species. Seven other varieties of sea turtles are endangered.

During her stay at the Sea Turtle Center, the staff learned Dylan is a female. It's nearly impossible to tell a sea turtle's gender until it reaches adulthood, which can take 30 years.

But the center tested Dylan's testosterone about four months ago and found it definitely was in the lower range seen in females.

When Dylan is released Monday, instinct should kick in and prompt her to swim out to sea, Norton said. If she stays on the beach, she'll be returned to the center.

Then staff would have to decide whether to try again. There's a slim chance, Norton said, that Dylan could have to spend the rest of her life in captivity.

If she heads into the water, the center will keep a close watch on where she goes using a satellite transmitter glued to the top of her massive shell, which is the size of a small coffee table.

Mark Dodd, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said satellites picking up the signal from Dylan's transmitter can plot her location within about 100 yards. It's set up to start transmitting whenever she surfaces.

Dodd said he's interested to find out whether Dylan acts her age. Baby sea turtles tend to swim far out to sea where there are fewer predators. As adults, loggerheads return closer to the coastline in the shallower waters between Florida and North Carolina.

"The best thing for her would be to hang out here, get fat eating crabs and maybe 20 years from now we'll see her again laying eggs," Dodd said.


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