280 Vanderbilt Beach Rd. , Naples, FL
NAPLES — A throng of beachgoers was waiting Tuesday afternoon when the Ford Explorer pulled up to Vanderbilt Beach.
Its cargo: 15 endangered green sea turtles plucked, stunned and in danger of death, from the cold waters of St. Joseph Bay in the Panhandle.
The turtles spent the last week warming up at a federal fish hatchery near Ocala.
Their cross-state journey ended Tuesday in the Gulf of Mexico off North Naples with the help of excited bystanders who carried the turtles to the warmer water’s edge and then cheered as they swam off.
Ten more green sea turtles, also rescued from cold waters in recent weeks, are planned to be released at Vanderbilt Beach today from Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.
The turtles are part of a massive statewide operation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and countless partner agencies and volunteers to try to save some 5,000 sea turtles that have turned up this month, paralyzed by the cold and unable to eat or swim.
“All the sea turtle people around the state are just scrambling,” Collier County sea turtle protection program director Maura Kraus said.
As the turtles recover in rehabilitation centers, Collier is getting a piece of the rescue action thanks to its relatively warmer water temperatures.
A turtle rescue wasn’t what Gulf Coast High School sophomores Jordan Runyon and Lauren Jacobs had in mind when they went to the beach for some sun Tuesday.
But there they were, teaming up to carry one of the turtles back to the Gulf as it flapped its flippers.
“It felt really good to be able to say we helped them,” said Jordan, 15.
The release started earlier Tuesday when a crew from Disney World brought the turtles from the Ocala area to Sarasota.
Volunteers with Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch took it from there, driving the turtles to Vanderbilt Beach.
“I’m happy. I’m really happy,” Turtle Watch director Suzi Fox said after the mission was complete.
The rash of cold-stunned sea turtles this month has been on a scale never before recorded in Florida, Conservation Commission wildlife biologist Allen Foley said.
More than half of the turtles have been released back to the wild, but 15 percent or so were found dead or died later, he said.
The cold snap has had a silver lining though, state scientists said.
They have tagged more turtles than ever before, which will help scientists learn more about where they go and their rate of survival, they say.
Scientists take genetic information from the turtles before they are released to find out where they hatched.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.