Rare Kemp Ridley turtles released into the Gulf

DEBORAH WHEELER 654-8443 | @WaltonSunDeb dwheeler@waltonsun.com

Aug. 20 was a special day for South Walton Turtle Watch.

Around 3 p.m. a line began to form at an Inlet Beach beach access.

Men, women and children formed lines opposite each other down the sand to the beach. Some holding signs.

The big moment arrived at 3:30 p.m. when officials from Gulf World carried the first oblong metal bucket from the back of their van triumphantly down the path between the throngs of onlookers and stopped midway for everyone to get a look at the young, rare male Kemp's Ridley sea turtle inside.

Spike, as he was named, was eager to get out and when the gloved officials reached in and picked him up, Spike's flippers began to wildly beat the air in a swimming motion.

He was ready to go home.

The officials carried Spike to the water and happily gave him a push into the Gulf waters from whence he came, amidst cheers from his adoring public.

Cheers of "Go, Spike!" and "Yay, Spike!" were heard all around.

And, go he did, and from all appearances, very happily so.

The South Walton Turtle Watch group got a call in April about a turtle that had washed up on the beach at Blue Mountain with a badly damaged front fin.

Seventeen-year veteran SWTW volunteer and coordinator Bobby Stuart drove to Blue Mountain and picked up the suffering turtle and transported him to Gulf World for rehabilitation.

"When I walked in with him, I heard clucking tongues all around," recalls Stuart. "They didn't know if they could save the fin, it was so badly damaged, or if it would have to be amputated."

But four months later, Spike was as good as new and ready to return to the Gulf.

"How awesome is that?" said Stuart with awe. "I've done a lot of strandings in 17 years, and most cases, the turtle is very dead. In fact, the morning of the release, I was working a dead Kemp's stranding. But to see two of the three rehabbed and able to be released is a special thing."

Spike's sea mate that was also released back into the Gulf last Thursday afternoon was Prince, also a rare Kemp's Ridley, which was found in shallow Gulf waters off Seagrove on Aug. 19. Senior Surfer Lifeguard Adam Boyer paddled out to help the turtle that was in distress with a fish hook caught in his mouth. Boyer pulled him onto his surf board and put him into a large plastic bucket of sea water, which he placed under the boardwalk in the shade out of the public's eye and called SWTW.

Stuart also picked up Prince and took him to Gulf World for removal of the fish hook.