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Rehabilitated Kemp's Ridley Released

October 27, 2011
 
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
 
Paul and Connie Summerlin were in the middle of their early-morning walk along the beach in south Baldwin County when they spotted a commotion.

When they investigated, a fisherman had reeled in an endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle. Because of their role with Share the Beach, the Summerlins quickly moved into action as the crowd watched the angler remove the monofilament line that had put the turtle in distress.

As members of the Share the Beach program, the Summerlins, who call Foley home, patrol a 1.3-mile stretch of beach to look for signs of sea turtle nesting activity. On this morning in May, they were distracted from their regular vigil.

“About 75 yards away, we saw a fisherman and there was a crowd gathering around him,” Paul said. “I thought he had caught a big fish, but I leaned out and looked that way and realized it was a turtle. So we ran down there right quick to look at her. He had already removed the monofilament and was fixing to release her. But I looked at her and told him we didn’t need to release her; we needed to get a recovery team out here with the Share the Beach turtle program.”

Share the Beach (www.alabamaseaturtles.com) is a volunteer program that enlists concerned citizens to walk every mile of the Alabama beaches from Mobile Bay to the Florida line, as well as Dauphin Island.

“We walk every morning during turtle-nesting season,” Summerlin said. “We walk it right at daylight to see if we spot any turtle trails before the crowds get out and disturb the tracks. If we find a turtle crawl, we call in a team and move the nest if necessary. We excavate the nest and count the eggs. We mark them and monitor them. The turtles will nest any time from May to the first of October. There are usually several rescues a year, but this is the first rescue effort we’ve been involved in.”

The Kemp’s ridley rarely nests along the Alabama Coast, although several nests have been verified. The majority of the nesting for the Kemp’s ridley, which is mostly carnivorous, occurs in Mexico and southern Texas. Although they rarely nest in Alabama, Kemp’s ridley turtles are frequently seen in Alabama waters by recreational and commercial fishermen.

Other sea turtles that may be encountered along the Alabama Coast include the loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill and green sea turtle. The leatherback and hawksbill are also listed as endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while the loggerhead and green are listed as threatened. The green sea turtle gets its name from the color of its fat because of its diet of vegetation and algae. The leatherback diet is made up mainly of jellyfish, while the hawksbill feeds primarily on sponges, invertebrates and algae. The loggerhead, which is the turtle most often encountered along the Alabama Coast, dines on hard-shelled animals like conchs and whelks, as well as crabs and other crustaceans.

When the Summerlins called 866-SEA-TURTLE to report the turtle in distress, a team from the Gulfarium in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., was quickly dispatched to recover the turtle and assess its health.

Rachel Cain, one of the turtle rehabilitators at Gulfarium, said the Summerlins definitely took the right action.

“The monofilament line was wrapped so tightly that it had cut off the circulation in the flippers,” Cain said. “The turtle was unable to swim well. She was brought to the Gulfarium to make sure the monofilament was completely removed, and she did have to undergo a course of antibiotics because of the deep cuts along each flipper. She also went through a little physical therapy to get a little more movement in each flipper. She did not lose any part of the flipper. One of the flippers is a little less functional, but she is able to get around with all the abilities she had previously. It’s just one flipper doesn’t move as well.

“They are a more-endangered species. We have a few nests in our area. This is one that is rarer, and we don’t encounter them as often in our area. It’s a smaller turtle species for our area. It gets to be about 100 pounds when it’s fully grown. Its shell is different. It looks almost like a lily pad compared to the other species, which have shells that are more teardrop-shaped.”

Patrick Berry, general manager of the Gulfarium, said the Kemp’s ridley release near the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge was one of three for the week.

“The Gulfarium has been in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., for more than 55 years,” Berry said. “We have quite a variety of species of animals at our facility. As far as our role in this project, we have been involved in sea turtle rehabilitation for many, many years, almost as long as the facility has been in existence. We’ve worked with the gamut of the sea turtle species to rehabilitate them and return them to the wild.

“Just the other day, we released another Kemp’s ridley turtle near Fort Walton Beach, where it was rescued. We’re also going to release a green sea turtle at Pensacola, where it was rescued. We’re thrilled to be a part of the sea turtle rehabilitation effort. It’s good for our staff, as well as the animals. We like to get the message out about how to conserve these animals for future generations.

Berry said the greatest threats to sea turtles are habitat degradation, entanglement in monofilament or netting, boat strikes and ingestion of garbage.

“Plastic bags get blown into the water that the turtles mistake for jellyfish,” he said. “Some of this is man-made, so we need to try to be careful to reduce those variables by reducing, reusing and recycling. All of us can do those simple little things that help conserve this type species and other species in the ocean.”

And this rescue effort turned out all smiles for the Summerlins, the Gulfarium team and the rest of the crowd that gathered recently at the end of Mobile Street on the Fort Morgan Peninsula as the rehabilitated 14-pound Kemp’s ridley turtle slowly crawled back into the surf and disappeared with flippers fanning its return to the Gulf of Mexico.

PHOTOS: An endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle, nicknamed Molly, is lifted from its transport crate and deposited on the beach near the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge by Lisa Crawford of the Gulfarium and Paul Summerlin of Foley as Connie Summerlin looks on. As part of the Share the Beach program, the Summerlins played a role in the rescue and rehabilitation of the turtle, which scooted down the sugar-colored sand and into the Gulf of Mexico, where she quickly disappeared into the clear, blue waters.

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