Loggerhead turtles get Tour de Turtles send-off

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Sea turtle nesting season may be winding down, but excitement is just beginning for the fourth annual Tour de Turtles: A Sea Turtle Migration Marathon. This past weekend, three loggerhead turtles received satellite tracking devices and were released with fanfare to join 12 additional sea turtles being released over a two-week period from other important nesting sites in the western hemisphere.

Once they’re all in the water, the “race” begins on Aug. 15 to see which turtle will swim the farthest during the three-month migration marathon, and which will win the Causes Challenge.

Each turtle is competing for a cause, which represents a threat to their survival. The public is invited to join in on the fun by following their progress on line at www.tourdeturtles.org and by adopting a turtle and its cause.

“It’s an event that takes the important research that we do anyway and makes it accessible to everyone,” said David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, which has been studying and protecting turtles for more than 50 years.

On Saturday morning Rapunzel, swimming to raise awareness about the threat of commercial trawl fisheries, and Lightning McQueen, swimming to combat the threat of light pollution, were released from Disney’s Vero Beach Resort.

Saturday evening, about two hundred turtle enthusiasts gathered at the Barrier Island Center at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge for a Tour de Turtles Kick-off Social. Delightful ocean breezes, augmented by enormous fans, cooled things down as guests were wined and dined at oceanfront tables, while being entertained by the band, 23 Treez.

Indoors, a large assortment of marine-themed silent auction items prompted some spirited bidding, with all proceeds helping to support sea turtle conservation.

Heidi Grooms, the center’s sanctuary steward, explained that once a healthy loggerhead was spotted and had laid her eggs in the wee hours of Sunday morning, she would be transported to the Start Gate and would have a transmitter attached to her carapace. Scientists would also build a shelter around her where she would rest before the 8:30 a.m. release.

Noted scientist Dr. Llewellyn Ehrhart, Professor Emeritus at the University of Central Florida, has been involved in the marine turtle research program since the days of Archie Carr who passed away in 1987.

“There are not that many of us left who worked with him,” said Ehrhart. “I’m proud to have called him a friend. He was one of this century’s greatest natural history writers.”

Ehrhart spoke affectionately about China Girl, an approximately 770-pound leatherback who was first seen nesting at the refuge in 1994 and has been returning intermittently ever since. In 2000, she became the first leatherback fitted with a transmitter.

“It always gives us heart failure when she doesn’t come back,” said Ehrhart, adding that she had returned to nest this year.

Sunday morning, Bubbles, swimming to raise awareness about the threat of plastic debris in the ocean, was released from the Archie Carr Refuge. She had nested at 2 a.m. and volunteers kept her company throughout the night despite a constant barrage of biting insects.

A crowd began to gather at 7:30 a.m. to see the 325 pound loggerhead laboriously make her way down to the water and begin her migration; by 8:29 excitement grew as the countdown began.

And Bubbles didn’t disappoint. Massive flippers pin-wheeling in the sand, she paused several times for the paparazzi before diving into the surf. She then delighted the gathering by breaching high in the water numerous times.

Realists may have thought it was an attempt to dislodge the transmitter, but to the children and dreamers in the crowd, it was to wave a fond farewell.

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