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Gulfarium Returns Leatherback To Gulf

A leatherback sea turtle was released back into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, following rehabilitation at  Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach. The large recently stranded female weighed in at 608 pounds, over 100 pounds heavier than originally estimated.

The turtle underwent a 4-day treatment period under Gularium’s Sea Turtle CARE (Conserve, Act, Rehabilitate, Educate) Program.

The leatherback was first noticed by beachgoer Dianne Masterson last Friday in Pensacola Beach. At that time, it appeared to be struggling in the shallow surf about a mile east of Portofino Towers. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission responded and determined that rescue and treatment was necessary.

After completing a series of diagnostic tests, the CARE team developed a treatment plan that included antibiotic, fluid, and laser therapies.

"Despite tests that revealed mild complications stemming from an old boat strike injury, within days the turtle demonstrated all of the skills necessary for release, such as diving and spatial awareness, and in consult with FWC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the turtle was cleared for release," said Gulfarium staff veterinarian, Dr. Rebecca Wells.

By chance, her timing coincided with the presence of a NOAA research team studying populations of leatherbacks in the panhandle. On Tuesday the turtle was loaded onto the team's 41-foot research vessel at the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Destin and was released 20 miles off the coast of Pensacola in an area where other leatherbacks had recently been seen foraging on jellyfish.

"We are happy to be a part of such a joyous occasion and team up with the Gulfarium to return this leatherback to the Gulf of Mexico," said NOAA's Research Fisheries Biologist Christopher Sasso. "Upon release the turtle took a dive underwater, resurfacing for a few breaths shortly thereafter."

The NOAA crew has been out since Saturday, locating leatherback sea turtles in local gulf waters. Each turtle is measured and equipped with satellite tags to track long term movement and collect data on dive patterns and water temperatures.

According to Sasso, this is the first directed research on leatherbacks.

"Very little is known about them including whether they are here all year long or just short term, and if it's the latter, which direction they are traveling from,” he said. “We hope to answer some of those questions and obtain accurate information on these endangered animals."

Video links:
https://youtu.be/hywB2J4T-sM" target="_blank">Release of the leatherback from NOAA vessel.  
https://youtu.be/Nj5JW-azn28" target="_blank">Leatherback in front loader during beach rescue.  
https://youtu.be/ZguOC-t4Rqo" target="_blank">Initial stranding in Pensacola Beach.  

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.