On May 1, 2017 Dr Chip Cotton, faculty at the Florida State Coastal and Marine Lab, led a group of people into the dark, choppy water on a blustery and rainy day. The winds had been heavy that day and an adult loggerhead sea turtle had been pushed into the boat basin. Normally these giants do not pay heed to simple things like wind, but this particular turtle was unable to dive. With this handicap she was at the mercy of the 15 knot gusts that were present at the surface and had been blown down the coast until the winds popped her into our basin where she struggled to regain course.
The Marine Lab staff noticed her and quickly determined that something was impeding her ability to submerge. The winds started to abate and the big turtle slowly started paddling on the surface, making only slight headway. She would swim five feet and be blown backwards four, only to begin swimming on the surface again.
As she rounded the corner to exit the basin, Dr Cotton realized that soon she would be in deeper water and we would need a boat to save her. Lacking the equipment to haul a turtle of this size safely into a boat, the decision was made to immediately wade out into the water in order to round her up and get her treatment. Often times these buoyancy issues do not resolve pleasantly when left in the wild.
So into the turbid water they went. Chip circled ahead of her in water nearly up to his neck while Dr Jeroen Ingles and Travis Mohrman attempted to flank her. All the while Julia continued her feeble surface paddling. Now out of the basin, the wind was blowing her along the coast again. As the three men began closing the figurative net around her, she seemed to notice and began swimming with more urgency. As Chip grabbed onto the back of her carapace (top part of shell) she mustered the energy to give one strong stroke and broke free! It was a good sign that she still had that much strength but on the second attempt we all realized that she had used her last bit of gas. She was one exhausted turtle and did not resist capture at all after that.
While the water rescue was taking place, a phone call had been made to Bill Wargo, Director of the nearby Alligator Point Sea Turtle Program. Mr Wargo operates under FWC marine turtle permit 151 and was needed to aid in the rescue. Once ashore, the group of would-be rescuers couldn’t help but stare in fascination at the veritable mini-ecosystem living on the carapace of this animal as she lay exhausted in a shallow pool. Her shell was thick with algae and had several good-sized barnacles; there was even a tiny crab scuttling around.
This turtle was quite large at over 150 pounds! FSU Coastal and Marine Lab got in touch with Gulf World Marine Institute who sent a crew over to pick the sick girl up for treatment. They arrived a short while later and used a sort of ‘sea turtle swaddling cloth’ to properly support her while she was loaded up for treatment at the institute.
For three and a half months Julia received top care. An examination revealed pneumonia was the cause of her severe buoyancy issues and so Gulf World Marine Institute treated her with antibiotics and kept her well fed and comfortable throughout her convalescence. The FSU Coastal and Marine Lab checked in periodically to hear how our new friend was doing and we were all delighted to learn of her steady progression towards good health.
Finally the day came when Julia’s radiograph showed no signs of the pneumonia that had plagued her fragile system. As her illness dissipated so did her buoyancy problem. She was even foraging for food on her own at the institute – we assume this meant she was sneaking out of her enclosure at night to snatch whelks and urchins from nearby tanks but we never asked for clarification.
On a gorgeous mid-August afternoon, on the white sand beaches of St George Island State Park, Julia’s day had finally come. Over 100 people, some from as far away as Millstadt, IL, gathered from all around to watch the release. Children squirmed impatiently upon the shoulders of adults, hoping for a better view of the rarely seen creature. Staff from the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Aquarium and the Florida Park Service were also on hand to help get the big girl safely into the water. During treatment they had estimated her age at 25 years old and most certainly the last few months had been on the stranger side of all those years.
The handlers lifted her back up in a similar blue wrapping and carried her down the surf line. They had mentioned that usually the turtles hurry into the water once freed from the carrier, but instead, Julia paused. She sat there upon the wet sand while the crowd of people all held their breath, waiting for her next move. Julia looked around for nearly 30 seconds, slowly blinking those big eyelids and taking the salt air into her newly cleared lungs. Finally, having settled whatever gave her pause, she pushed off with those powerful back flippers, pulled forward with the front ones, and glided into the surf with her freshly cleaned carapace. The crowd clapped and laughed with delight, children ventured into the surf to watch her shell barely skim the surface as she slipped along; back out to sea to begin her next adventure.
The faces in the crowd were still plastered with big grins as Julia swam farther and farther out until she was past a small shoal.
Then, after more than three months, Julia dove.