Loggerhead sea turtle snatched by Minnesota tourist finally meets Gulf of Mexico

Troy Frensley, the Conservatory's Education and Discovery Center Manager, releases a loggerhead turtle into the water on Thursday, June 26, 2008. The turtle was taken to Minnesota by a tourist on vacation in Sanibel Island while the turtle was still a hatchling. Shortly thereafter, the turtle was turned over to the Minnesota Herpetological Society and lived in a Minnesota zoo for one year before it was brought to Naples in 2005. The turtle was released in Gullivan Bay in the 10,000 Islands off the Southern coast of Florida. Ed Matthews/Staff

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Troy Frensley, the Conservatory's Education and Discovery Center Manager, releases a loggerhead turtle into the water on Thursday, June 26, 2008. The turtle was taken to Minnesota by a tourist on vacation in Sanibel Island while the turtle was still a hatchling. Shortly thereafter, the turtle was turned over to the Minnesota Herpetological Society and lived in a Minnesota zoo for one year before it was brought to Naples in 2005. The turtle was released in Gullivan Bay in the 10,000 Islands off the Southern coast of Florida. Ed Matthews/Staff

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A loggerhead sea turtle snatched by Minnesota tourist was returned to the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, June 26, 2008.

A loggerhead sea turtle snatched by Minnesota tourist was returned to the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, June 26, 2008. Watch »

After hiding away in Minnesota and Naples, he came crawling home Thursday.

A loggerhead sea turtle finally returned to his home in the waters off Southwest Florida on Thursday, four years after being smuggled out of state by a tourist vacationing on Sanibel Island.

Conservancy of Southwest Florida acquired the unnamed, 8-pound turtle three years ago from a Minnesota zoo. The zoo agreed to take the loggerhead — a species protected by the federal Endangered Species Protection Act — in exchange for not pressing charges against the tourist.

The loggerhead had no injuries when it arrived at Conservancy.

However, to ensure its survival in the wild, it had to grow to its current releasable size of about nearly 18 inches to prevent larger predators from snacking on it.

“This turtle didn’t need any rehabilitation at all,” said Troy Frensley, Discovery Center supervisor for Conservancy. “It just needed a place to go to have care provided for it, and you know, obviously we were able to have this animal for a lot of good education while it was here.”

In May, Conservancy hosted a Sea Turtle Festival as an educational event and as a formal chance for the public to say goodbye to the now 25-pound turtle.

“We were going to lose one of our most valuable educational properties around here,” said Barbara Wilson, director of marketing and communications.

Wilson said 2,291 people attended the festival, which was a record number for any event Conservancy has ever hosted.

“It was a good opportunity with the sea turtle going away,” Wilson said. “So doing it as a bye-bye turtle festival really helped us accomplish that education that we wanted to do.”

A dry, opaque plastic storage tub was used to transport the turtle by car and boat Thursday until its release into the sea at Gullivan Bay, situated in the Ten Thousand Islands off the southwest coast of Collier.

The loggerhead was intentionally released in the middle of the sea turtle nesting season, which runs from May 1 to Oct. 31.

Frensley, who had been one of the turtle’s caregivers since its arrival at Conservancy, lowered the fin-flailing, eager turtle into the cloudy, green water.

“It is bitter sweet, but to see the turtle swim away quickly off in the search of food now is definitely rewarding,” Frensley said. “This is the end result that we want. We were able to successfully re-enter the turtle, and in the process this turtle became an ambassador for so many thousands of people, which in turn is helping to protect this very species … it is definitely rewarding.”

Dave Addison, co-director of environmental science and head of the 26-year-old sea turtle protection program, also was present on the boat.

“You know how sometimes you get lucky,” Addison said. “This thing used up several lifetimes of luck.”

Addison holds the necessary permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that allows Conservancy to rehabilitate and release sea turtles, such as this one, into the wild.

“It’s always good to see them go because you watched him swim off and he was accelerating as he left,” Addison said.

A chip was inserted into one of the turtle’s back fins, so it can be identified in the future, considering that Florida’s beaches account for one-third of the world’s population of loggerheads. Conservancy officials have referred to it as a ‘he’ although the gender isn’t known and it would have been invasive to determine.

“It’s nice to have them and use them for education like Troy said,” Addison said. “I mean, you can get a good message out with people looking at an animal, but you know you would rather have people be able to get in the water and go snorkeling to see a turtle. That’s what really grabs you.”

Conservancy anticipates the arrival of a new sea turtle this fall, Frensley said.

“Right now it looks as though hatchlings are all that are available, which means that we are going to have to set up another exhibit because it’s too small to go into that large of an aquarium,” Frensley said.

E-mail Sarah Donovan at sdonovan2@gmail.com

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