Scientists and caregivers from Mote Marine Laboratory returned an endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle to the wild following the animal’s incredible 4,600-mile journey back to the Gulf of Mexico. Dozens of well-wishers were on hand at Lido Beach to see the turtle off.
The turtle, an endangered Kemp’s ridley nicknamed “Johnny Vasco da Gama,” was found stranded in 2008 in the Netherlands after it apparently got caught in the Gulf Stream and was carried there from its home in the Gulf of Mexico. It would have died from the cold water had it not been rescued.and rehabilitated in Portugal. The turtle was brought to Sarasota on November 29 to complete its recovery at Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital and to be outfitted with a state-of-the-art satellite tracking system by Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program.
The satellite tag allows scientists the ability to determine the success of the turtle’s rehabilitation upon its return to its natural environment, said Dr. Tony Tucker, leader of Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program. Tucker, a Florida Marine Turtle Permitholder, coordinates Mote’s sea turtle research and satellite tagging efforts and is a member of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group, an internationally recognized body that works for the conservation of marine turtles.
“Rehabilitation success can be judged by the turtle resuming normal behavior upon return to the wild,” Tucker said. “Since we have an ongoing tagging program with Kemp’s ridleys in Charlotte Harbor, that also will give us something to compare this turtle’s behavior to.”
Mote has tracked more than 120 sea turtles since 2005 and is one of the few Florida facilities with permission to satellite tag and track turtles that have been rehabilitated following an injury or illness. Johnny’s satellite tag was supplied by Wildlife Computers and will reveal the turtle’s whereabouts as it re-orients to its breeding and feeding grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.
Because turtles use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate — and commonly travel hundreds of miles between the places where they breed and the places where they feed — Johnny is expected to find its way home with relative ease. “By tracking Johnny, we’ll obtain a rare look at how rehabbed turtles reorient in the wild,” Tucker said.
“The most exciting part of Johnny’s journey is yet to come,” said Sheryan Epperly, Sea Turtle Program Lead from the Southeast Fisheries Science Center of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. “Tracking will help to define the turtle’s movement patterns which will then give us a better understanding of habitat use.”
- The public can follow along on this turtle’s journey home by logging onto http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/?project_id=141 and clicking on “Johnny” or by going to http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?tag_id=113650. The seaturtle.org website will include regular updates of Johnny’s travels and sea; it also shows updates from the many other turtles that Mote and other organizations are tracking in the wild.
About Johnny’s Journey
The turtle was returned to Florida through an international team effort by the theme park Zoomarine in Portugal, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), NOAA Fisheries Service, The U.S. Embassy in Portugal, the Portuguese airline TAP and Mote.
“Johnny’s release is an exciting and proud moment for all involved, but more importantly, it is a milestone in the effort to save the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle population,” said FWC biologist Meghan Koperski, who helped arrange and carry out the turtle’s journey.
Records of European strandings of Kemp’s ridleys are rare but known from museum specimens dating to 1921 in Ireland, 1913 in Great Britain, 1954 in the Netherlands and 1926 in France. Isolated trans-Atlantic waifs result when currents of the Gulf Stream transport young Kemp’s ridleys away from their usual coastal habitats along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Seaboard.
The Kemp’s ridley turtle was rescued in November 2008 in the Netherlands. The turtle was stabilized by the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands and sent to the aquarium Oceanário de Lisboa in Portugal the following summer and was transferred to Zoomarine for rehab.
Zoomarine staff identified the turtle as a juvenile Kemp’s ridley — a highly endangered species that spends this part of its life feeding in relatively shallow, warm waters of the western North Atlantic, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, which is thousands of miles from where it was rescued. To return the turtle to optimum habitat, Zoomarine staff worked with NOAA Fisheries Service, FWC and Mote to obtain special import and export permits and arrange for the turtle’s journey to Florida.
The turtle’s travels earned it the nickname “Johnny Vasco da Gama” for the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who opened the sea route from Europe to India. The turtle was named “Johnny” in the Netherlands and gained its explorer name in Portugal.
Johnny was flown from Portugal to Miami on Nov. 28, 2011, in cabin space donated by TAP and accompanied by caregivers from Zoomarine. The turtle was driven to Mote on Nov. 29 by FWC staff and was welcomed to its new home by staff from Mote, FWC, NOAA Fisheries Service, TAP and Zoomarine.
At Mote, the turtle received a thorough medical exam and its health was monitored through blood tests and careful observation. When the turtle was deemed healthy enough to return to the wild, its release was scheduled by FWC — the government agency that oversees the protection of wild sea turtles in Florida.
- Mote’s sea turtle hospital has treated more than 283 sick and injured sea turtles since 1995. Learn more and support these efforts with a donation at:www.mote.org/seaturtlehospital.
- Learn about Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program and support it with a donation at: www.mote.org/seaturtles.
Founded in 1955, Mote Marine Laboratory is an independent nonprofit (501(c)3) marine research organization based in Sarasota, Fla., with field stations in eastern Sarasota County, Charlotte Harbor and the Florida Keys. Donations to Mote are tax deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law. We are dedicated to today’s research for tomorrow’s oceans through the study of marine and estuarine ecosystems, through our public Mote Aquarium and through an education division that provides unique programs for all ages. Mote scientific research focuses on sharks, sea turtles and marine mammals, coral reefs, the study of toxins in the environment and their effect on human health, aquaculture, coastal ecology and fisheries enhancement. Showcasing this research is Mote Aquarium, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 365 days a year. Learn more at www.mote.org.