COLLIER COUNTY — Dozens of endangered sea turtles, plucked from the oil-fouled waters of the Deepwater Horizon disaster this summer, got a second chance Tuesday in Southwest Florida.
Two boats of wildlife rescuers released 42 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles in two spots off Turtle Key and Gullivan Key southeast of Marco Island, along the border between the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
The releases — what one Florida wildlife official said was the largest number of rescued sea turtles returned to the Gulf of Mexico in a single day since the spill — capped a remarkable journey of recovery that has stretched for weeks and hundreds of miles.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” said Cara Field, a veterinarian with the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, where the first oiled turtles and many of Tuesday’s releases were taken after BP’s well ruptured.
“It’s the best feeling knowing you could make a difference for them,” she said.
The juvenile turtles — their shells about the size of a dinner plate — were rescued between June and early August.
Of the 42, 37 were victims of the oil spill and the other five were found stranded in Mississippi but without oil on them.
After they were cleaned up and nursed back to health, the turtles were distributed from Audubon Institute and Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach to secondary rehabilitation centers at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota and Sea World and Disney’s The Living Seas.
On Tuesday, workers from those centers delivered the turtles in vans full of blue and gray crates, each containing a tagged turtle wrapped in a white towel.
The creates were unloaded at the Calusa Bay Marina on Goodland and then stacked onto boats for the final 5-mile trip to the release sites.
As the crates sat on the dock, some of them shook with the force of flippers thumping and scratching against the insides of the containers.
“Some of these guys are ready to go,” said Rhonda Bailey, biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s sea turtle rescue network.
Once at the release site, rescuers took the turtles one-by-one out of their crates, recorded them in a log book and gently lowered them over the side of the boat with their bare hands.
The turtles flapped along the surface of the water, seemingly getting their bearings, before dipping below the surface and out of sight.
Nobody can say for sure their chances of making it, Conservancy of Southwest Florida research manager Jeff Schmid said.
Schmid’s research, first with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and later with the Conservancy, laid the groundwork for Tuesday’s releases.
Tagging studies dating back to 1997 discovered a resident population of juvenile Kemp’s ridley sea turtles in the two spots that have become post-spill release zones a safe distance from the spill itself.
Three times before Tuesday, rescuers have released non-oiled turtles at the same spots in the Ten Thousand Islands this summer to make room at rehabilitation clinics for turtles harmed by the spill.
Bailey said at least 150 more oil spill turtles are waiting to be released, and more could be headed to Southwest Florida.
Turtles at about the same age as those being released Tuesday spend years at the Gullivan Bay sites, hunting crabs and other hard bottom dwellers.
While a few Kemp’s ridley have been found nesting on Southwest Florida beaches, they nest in their largest numbers on the Gulf coast of Mexico and in South Texas.
Schmid said it is unknown how faithful the transplanted turtles might be to their original homes and try to migrate back to the northern Gulf.
“That’s a riddle of the Ridley’s if you will, one of the many,” he said.