As twilight crept over Anastasia State Park on Thursday, 19 sea turtles were reunited with the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean after a long, cross-country journey of rehabilitation and release.
A small group of park staff and volunteers gathered on the sands to witness as members of the National Aquarium Animal Rescue Team released four Green Sea Turtles and 15 Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles into the ocean waves.
“It’s the largest release that we’ve done in many years,” said Renee Market, park services specialist for Anastasia State Park.
After washing up across New England area beaches with symptoms related to cold stunning, the turtles underwent treatment and rehabilitation at three separate agencies — the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, the National Marine Life Center in Bourne, Massachusetts, and the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium — before being determined ready for release.
Anastasia State Park was selected by the State of Florida as the release location based on specific criteria for water temperature and time of year.
“We’re very, very happy that we were chosen,” Market said. “We get picked a lot for things like top tourist destination, most beautiful beach. People don’t really see us as an ecosystem haven, which is what we are, first and foremost. And so, this is really exciting for us because it kind of gets to highlight what we really do and why we do it.”
Jennifer Dittmar, of the National Aquarium Animal Rescue team, spearheaded the turtle’s transport and release. Carrying the turtles in an SUV, the team departed Baltimore at 3 a.m. and drove straight through the day, arriving to Anastasia State Park shortly after 5 p.m.
“It’s always a great feeling for me to be able to release sea turtles,” she said. “I know for other staff members and our volunteers it a bittersweet moment because we have cared for them in a rehab setting for a period of time and there is that little bit of a connection that you make to them. But ultimately, they’re wild animals and that’s our mission — to rehabilitate them and release them back to their natural environment.”