Video: Hundreds watch as five Kemp’s Ridley turtles returned to sea

Ryan Richardson

As soon as Lavender’s flippers touched the ground, she began to run down the beach.

Hundreds of people looked on July 30 as Lavender and four other Kemp’s Ridley turtles returned to their homes. Whether it was the sound of the surf, the smell of the salt air, or the sight of the crashing waves that signaled her homecoming, the young turtle sped toward the ocean.

Almost two years away from home can be a powerful motivator to leave behind the leisurely pace turtles are known for.

“Lavender did really great,” Dr. Roger Williams of the National Marine Life Center said. “Now it’s on to the next project.”

Lavender was found on Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable November 2006.

She washed ashore, stunned by the falling temperatures of the Atlantic in the fall. As cold-blooded animals, Kemp’s Ridley turtles are very sensitive to their environment. When the water gets colder, the turtles’ bodies slow down in response. If it gets too cold, their whole system can shut down.

This phenomenon, known as cold stunning, leaves a turtle vulnerable to disease and predation as it drifts on the tides and currents. Since they can’t swim or dive to get out of the way, the animals are also vulnerable to injury from passing boats

That’s how the other four turtles – Tigger, Waldorf, Ursula and Scooby Doo – wound up on the shores of Cape Cod. While beach-goers and marine rescue organizations were able to come to their aid, many of the turtles that dwell too long in the waters off New England aren’t so lucky.

From the Cape, the turtles went to different rehabilitation centers to begin their slow journey to recovery. Turtles are often rife with infection and frostbite from their time in the cold waters, and veterinarians have to deal with a variety of bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections. Since the turtles have weakened immune systems from their ordeal, not too mention slow metabolisms to start with, treatments that might take a few weeks for mammals are stretched out to a few months in these animals.

Helping the turtles reclaim their health is a lot of work, but it’s worth it for the dozens of volunteers and staff that make it all possible.

“Saving these critically endangered animals is essential to ocean conservation,” Kathy Zagzebski, executive director of the National Marine Life Center, said in a prepared statement.

The Kemp’s Ridley plays an important predator role up and down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The Kemp’s Ridley has a population of only a few thousand breeding females in the wild, and they only breed along a small stretch of the Gulf Coast once they’ve reached maturity. Global climate change, as well as development in their traditional breeding grounds, have increased the problems the turtles face.

So saving these five sea turtles became an important effort for the New England marine rehabilitation community, from the University of New England Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center – or MARC – in Maine all the way south to Woods Hole.

Lavender’s story is typical of the collaboration among these institutions. She initially went to the rehabilitation center at the New England Aquarium in Boston. In January 2007 she was healthy enough to be transferred to the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay. At the NMLC, Lavender began to recover from her injuries and her pneumonia. Sadly, a heavy snowfall in late 2007 closed the center’s rehabilitation facility, so Lavender had to move to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

During that time, between January of this year and July, the center’s veterinarians – Dr. Michele Sims and Williams – watched over her while she finished her recuperation. While her illness might have kept her from the water in 2007, their care made sure that wasn’t an obstacle July 30.

“She should have a full recovery, and we’re expecting her to do well in the wild,” Williams said.

This release was especially important to researchers, since two of the turtles – Lavender and Ursula – were fitted with satellite tracking tags. The two-ounce devices won’t have any impact on how they swim and behave, and they will fall off as the young turtles mature.

The tags will provide data for approximately one year of the turtles’ lives as they migrate up and down the Atlantic coast, giving researchers a better understanding of how these turtles behave in the wild. The data will help researchers better protect the turtles and their habitats.

At Dowses Beach in Osterville, the scene was a little like a movie premiere. The crowd was roped off behind the catwalk as the five turtles were paraded out for their fans. It was a chance for many to get up close and personal with the endangered species and learn about their lives beneath the waves. Staff from the New England Aquarium, the NMLC and MARC carried the turtles slowly, mugging a little for the cameras as the amphibians became more excited by the prospect of returning to the sea.

The turtles and their handlers lined up at the crest of a dune and waited till the tide was just right. Volunteers piled rocks and stones from the beach into a corral to discourage the “stars” from dwelling on the beach too long.

The tortoise may have beaten the hare by going slowly and steadily, but Lavender beat her fellow turtles with speed that would have given the hare a run for its money. Almost as soon as she had started down the beach, she had vanished beneath the waves.

Eventually, the rest of the turtles, some with a little help, made their way into the ocean.

“It’s still summertime on Cape Cod, so the turtles should stick around for another few weeks or a couple of months,” Zagzebski said.

To follow Lavender’s progress in the ocean, visit