Benton Wesley hesitated, but once Frank Hardy got the feel of sand beneath his flippers, he made a beeline for the surf, soon disappearing under a crashing wave on the Vineyard’s south shore.
About 10 months after the two rare Kemp’s Ridley turtles washed up on a Cape Cod beach in a hypothermic state, they were returned to the waves off Long Point in West Tisbury Wednesday, tiny transmitters attached to their shells to track their movements and an excited crowd there to cheer them on.
Kemp’s Ridley are the most endangered sea turtles, and are listed as critically endangered.
For Frank and Benton, the return to the water was the end of a saga that began last November and December on Cape Cod, where 393 sea turtles washed ashore, 242 of them alive. In a normal year, the New England Aquarium said, about 70 sea turtles wash up on the Cape.
The turtles were hypothermic and needed medical attention. Over the next months, they were dispersed around the country. Some of the turtles traveled south via Coast Guard and Navy airplanes, and were released.
Frank and Benton, this week’s heroes of the day, stayed at the New England Aquarium, tended to by a team of staff, volunteers and interns. The turtles were named after crime fiction characters, this year’s theme for the names of long-term aquarium patients. Frank’s namesake comes from The Hardy Boys series, while Benton Wesley is best known as Dr. Kay Scarpetta’s paramour from Patricia Cornwall’s fiction.
Four other turtles were scheduled to be released this week but delayed because of problems with their transmitters. Kemp’s Ridley turtles Kay Scarpetta and Precious (of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency) and green turtles Spenser and Nate the Great will be released at an undetermined location in the next few weeks.
The turtles faced multiple additional health problems including blood chemistry imbalances, kidney failure, fractures and emaciation, the New England Aquarium said.
The end of Benton and Frank’s road to recovery came at Long Point Wildlife Refuge Wednesday morning. The turtles waited in gray containers in a roped-off stretch of sand, surrounded by onlookers and a group from Camp Jabberwocky.
New England Aquarium public relations director Tony LaCasse warmed up the crowed with a megaphone. Aquarium volunteers picked up the turtles and took them for a lap so the crowd could get a peek.
The Trustees of Reservations owns the Long Point property. Trustees president Barbara Erickson said Long Point’s location gives the turtles a chance to get out to open water without getting diverted into Long Island Sound.
Frank and Benton are juveniles, between three and five years old — Mr. LaCasse said juvenile turtles are the ones that get stranded on the Cape. Despite their names, their genders are unknown. The turtles are pale green and have flippers with nails on them. In the juvenile stage, they eat crabs. They can live at least 30 years and can live to be as old as 70.
After the crowd counted down from 10, the turtles sat on the sand for a minute before heading toward the waves. They disappeared into the surf within a minute and a half.
Seeing the turtles depart was “bittersweet,” New England Aquarium rescue and rehabilitation biologist Kerry McNally said.
Over the winter and spring she said the turtles received antibiotics and medical treatment as biologists took blood work and did x-rays. Now, the turtles “are in perfect health,” she said.
“It’s what we work so hard for,” she said. But she admitted the staff “get pretty attached to them and spent more time with them than our own pets.”
“It was a long road for them,” she added. Some of the turtles had severe pneumonia and were on antibiotics for a long time. “Now they’re ready to go,” Ms. McNally said.
Aquarium volunteer Maurice Weinrobe, a Newton resident, said he was there when the turtles were first brought to the aquarium. On Wednesday he was the one who placed Benton on the sand.
“Oh, it’s about like seeing a child go off to college,” he said afterward.
“When they come in, sometimes we don’t even know if they’re alive,” he said. The turtles were in a hypothermic state, and some did not have heartbeats. Their body temperatures were well below normal, he said, and the staff had to revive them.
“Then you baby them,” he recalled. The turtles could not be placed in water warmer than their body temperature. “Everything is gradual steps.”
Though the turtles have left, their progress will be monitored with the transmitters, which will record their location when they come to the surface for air, as well as the length and depth of their dives and the water temperature. Biologists, turtle handlers with separation anxiety or anyone else can monitor their progress on the web via seaturtle.org.
Mr. LaCasse said the turtles will likely head straight down the Atlantic coast, migrating to Florida or the Gulf of Mexico. Long Point’s location will help them get there by giving them a head start away from the Cape, he said. The turtles may return to the Cape area as juveniles, but not as adults. It’s not clear if the turtles come up one year or a couple times, Mr. LaCasse said. “We could find out, if the [transmitters] stay on a whole year,” he said.
The transmitters on the turtles’ shells, affixed with an epoxy, are not permanent. Like other reptiles, turtles do some shedding, and eventually they will shed the part of their carapace where the transmitters have been placed. The staff hopes that won’t take place for awhile, giving them time to get data from the turtles.
Mr. LaCasse said that while the transmitters might provide a little bit of drag, historically animals have done well with them. Most of all, it might help to understand more about the turtles. “For most animals, we don’t know what the extent of their habitat is and how they use it,” he said.
For example, the reason for last winter’s massive turtle stranding is unclear, Mr. LaCasse said. One theory posits that a minor rebound in population meant more turtles coming to the Cape, with a certain percentage “always going to get caught because of the unique geography of the Cape.”
Other speculation centers on warmer waters in the winter of 2011 and 2012. “We wonder how that might have affected sea turtle behavior,” he said, especially migratory patterns and environmental cues.
“We really don’t know a lot about how sea turtles use the Cape, especially when they arrive and how widely they forage,” Mr. LaCasse said.
He said there are high hopes for Frank and Benton. “They are actually very prepared,” he said. After their medical treatment, they had a long period of convalescence. “They really built up a lot of fat reserves,” he said, and might even be healthier than their counterparts in the wild. Often, migrating animals lose weight because they are not feeding heavily.
As for Benton’s hesitation when he hit the beach, Mr. LaCasse said that’s to be expected — the turtles were getting their bearings, he said, and usually are not too reactive when they are put on the sand. But all of a sudden, he said, they get the smell of the saltwater in their nostrils. And “that’s it.”
For a video of the turtle release, visit: Sea Turtles Released at Long Point