August 27, 2008

Fine Now, and Flipping Away


By Scott Harper

The Virginian-Pilot

cape charles

Snap, Crackle and Pop left Virginia with a bang on Tuesday.

The three endangered sea turtles, rescued earlier this summer from a New Jersey nuclear power plant, drew throngs of Eastern Shore residents and tourists to a public beach in this town on the Chesapeake Bay.

There, just after 11 a.m., handlers from Virginia Beach carried the three platter-size juveniles about 50 feet from shore and, to loud applause, gently released them back into the wild.

"OK, guys!" Wendy Walton, a veterinarian technician with the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team, shouted to a crowd that waded into the Bay to witness the event. "They're ready to go home. They've had a long trip."

With that, the three Kemp's ridley turtles - the rarest and smallest of all sea turtles - flapped their flippers and swam hurriedly into the green depths. They did not look back.

So ended a monthlong rehabilitation at the stranding team's medical center in Virginia Beach, where experts nicknamed the youngsters after the famous trio of elves that promote Rice Krispies cereal.

Asked afterward about the nicknames, Walton said with a chuckle, "I have no idea where that came from . I guess it was sort of a collaborative thing."

Pop had the longest road to recovery. Dr. Sean Back, a veterinarian from Beach Pet Hospital, said he stitched a nasty cut on Pop's underside last month, which was either a bite mark or the result of getting banged around inside a cooling-water pipe at the nuclear plant.

Snap and Crackle, on the other hand, required some antibiotics and "a little TLC" before being ready for the wild again, Walton said.

"After they settled in, they chowed down big-time," she said. "I'm just glad we could help get them going again."

No one was quite sure whether the turtles were boys or girls, and experts estimated their ages to be 5 years old.

They were brought to Virginia Beach on July 14 after being rescued and cared for briefly in New Jersey. They were taken south because the rehab center in New Jersey was running out of room and undergoing a renovation, officials said.

Kemp's ridleys nest almost exclusively in Mexico, though officials in Texas are attempting to establish colonies on the Gulf Coast there. They can be found most often in the Gulf of Mexico but are known to wander up the Atlantic coast as far north as Cape Cod, Mass.

Like most sea turtles, they stop at the Chesapeake Bay for rest and food. And despite being the most endangered of all sea turtles, they are the second most commonly seen variety in Virginia waters, officials said.

Walton described Kemp's ridleys as "slightly hyperactive." They frequently recoiled from loud noises at the care center, she said, and would swim excitedly toward shelter or each other.

"They're our little ADD turtles," she said.

The three juveniles were brought to Cape Charles by truck Tuesday morning. Melissa Roberts, a technician with Beach Pet Hospital, said one of the turtles "rode in my lap the whole way here."

The stranding team often releases its troubled travelers directly back in the ocean. But after a successful release of a loggerhead sea turtle in Cape Charles last month, team leaders thought they would return to the Eastern Shore town.

"The Bay is a fabulous environment for them to be reintroduced," Walton said. "It's protected a little, and they can feed here for a while before deciding where to go next."

Town manager Joe Vaccaro had issued a news release last week inviting Eastern Shore residents and visitors to come watch the release. More than 100 people - many of them children - wait ed at the beach and under the town gazebo for the big event.

Sherry Borror worked all day Monday to make sure she had free time Tuesday morning. An unabashed turtle lover, Borror said her attraction is partly spiritual, arising from her belief in a deep connection between man and beast.

"It's God's will that we should help them," she said.

As she watched the crowd splash into the Bay to see the turtles one last time, she stayed on the beach with a camera in hand and smiled contentedly.

"Isn't that nice?" she said, clicking more pictures of the scene.

Scott Harper, (757) 446-2340, [email protected]

Originally published by BY SCOTT HARPER.

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