Two sea turtles rescued from red tide poisoning released on Naples beach

A loggerhead sea turtle is released into the Gulf of Mexico at Third Avenue North in Naples on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018.

For months hundreds of dead sea turtles have washed up on Southwest Florida beaches, the apparent victims of red tide, but two turtles got lucky.

Scientists found them in time to rescue them, restore them back to health and ultimately return them home.

A crew from Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota released two rehabilitated loggerhead sea turtles Wednesday morning at Third Avenue North beach in Naples. The turtles were discovered this summer on Collier and Lee County beaches, suffering from the effects of a toxic red tide algal bloom that poisons their food sources and causes neurological problems.

Rescuers captured the first turtle, later named Barron, on July 26 on Captiva Island. He was "feisty" and tried to bite anyone who touched him, recalled Maura Kraus, principal environmental specialist and sea turtle expert for Collier County.

Barron was first taken to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife on Sanibel Island and then was transferred to Mote Marine Laboratory to complete his rehabilitation.

Kraus rescued the other sea turtle, Banner, from a beach near Port Royal in Naples the night of Aug. 13.

"I got a phone call that there was a live sea turtle that was on the beach," she said. "Well a lot of times when we get those calls, it's not actually alive, it's just bobbing in the water, but this one was lifting its head up and down and was breathing."

So Kraus gathered her friends who helped her lift the 200-pound animal onto a gurney and into the back of her daughter's pickup. It was too late for staff from the Sanibel wildlife clinic to come get the sea turtle, so Kraus kept him in her shed overnight.

"His eyes were bulging and he just wasn't doing well, so we watched him all night," she said. "We had big fans on him and wet towels and kind of baby-sat him all night."

Wildlife clinic staff came the next morning and, after a brief stint at CROW, Banner joined Barron at Mote Marine Laboratory.

Beachgoers watch as a loggerhead sea turtle is released into the Gulf of Mexico at Third Avenue North in Naples on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018.

There the turtles were kept in rehabilitation pools while they recovered.

"Vitals are routinely monitored, and turtles receive fluid therapy. Turtles also receive different types of food options," Mote Marine spokeswoman Stephanie Kettle said. "Red tide exposure for sea turtles can happen through breathing the toxins and through their food, so by being in clean water and receiving uncontaminated food, they can begin to recover."

However, it can take up to 50 days for the toxins to clear their systems, according to Mote scientists.

From July 1 through Sept. 21, Mote has documented 203 stranded sea turtles, mostly from Sarasota County, Kettle said. She said only 14 of those have been alive. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission determined that red tide killed 112 of those turtles. Others were killed by boat strikes, fishing gear entanglement, and natural causes.

Banner is one of five turtles — three Kemp's ridleys, which are one of the world's most endangered sea turtles, and two loggerheads, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — that scientists have rescued in Collier County this year.

They're the fortunate ones.

Since Jan. 1, 90 sea turtles have been found dead in Collier County, Kraus said. That's nearly three times the average and also the highest number of deaths since 2006, the last time the state experienced a red tide bloom of this size and longevity.

Beachgoers watch as a loggerhead sea turtle is released into the Gulf of Mexico at Third Avenue North in Naples on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018.

The current bloom has lingered along the Southwest Florida coast since October, at times stretching from Tampa Bay to the Florida Keys. 

The organism (Karenia brevis) that causes red tide occurs naturally. However, many water quality scientists say the blooms last longer and are more intense due to human activities such as farming and development.

Red tide blooms are typically broken up by cold weather systems that come from the mainland during the winter months, which means this bloom could be here well into 2019, but in recent weeks researchers have reported lower counts of red tide in Collier and Lee counties.

Beaches farther north near Sarasota and Tampa also are combating the bloom, which is one reason Mote released Barron and Banner in Naples. The other is because the turtles were from the area.

Both turtles were fitted with satellite trackers so researchers can continue to monitor them. Meanwhile, locals are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best for Barron and Banner.

"I hope they make it," Kraus said. "We've had a rough enough summer."

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