AS HUNDREDS of beachgoers cheered, a two-year-old sea turtle named Squirty lumbered to the water’s edge and then, strong flippers pushing against the waves, swam toward the ocean—and freedom.
Watching Squirty go, Amy Capelo, a program assistant at Tybee Island’s Burton 4H Center and Squirty’s principal caretaker, hugged friends but also cried. “It’s sad” because the loggerhead sea turtle was leaving, she said. “But I’m so proud. He took right off into the waves.”
Recently, the 26-year-old Capelo had changed Squirty’s diet, adding live crabs and his favorite dish—live jellyfish—so he could learn to catch his own food.
As Squirty was released to the waves, Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist Adam MacKinnon said the survival of this one turtle was not all that significant—although the species is threatened world-wide.
Still, Thursday’s event was important. “This turtle serves as an ambassador,” MacKinnon said. More than 12,000 children at the 4H Center learned about sea turtles by meeting Squirty. Also, more than 500 Tybee visitors watched his release, withTV crews filming it.
The publicity about this turtle was “a huge value,” MacKinnon said. “Through the release of this sea turtle, you can motivate people to care about the environment.”
Squirty was found on Jekyll Island in September, 2006. In a nest filled with broken eggs, volunteers found one “hatchling straggler,” one tiny, newborn sea turtle who couldn’t find the ocean.
The 4H Center had a 980-gallon tank and took Squirty right away. He weighed just 20 grams, about the weight of four nickels, Capelo said, compared to 20 pounds today. The 4H children named him Squirty—formally “lst Lt. Squirty O’Brien”—“because when he comes up to breathe, he will squirt water out of his nose.”
Squirty was examined recently by a Jekyll Island vet and deemed healthy enough to release. Despite his objections, Squirty’s flippers were tagged, Capelo said, but his shell was too small for a satellite transmission device; she won’t be able to follow his progress.
As Squirty pushed into the ocean Thursday, he quickly disappeared. You could see him clearly at first, flippers churning, charging into the waves. Then he became a brown oval moving below the blue-gray water.. And then...gone.
Where did he go? MacKinnon guessed that Squirty might stay near Tybee his first night at sea. But would this wild-again turtle head for the Gulf Stream? Or hug the coast?
“Who knows?” MacKinnon said.
One thing was certain: MacKinnon was pleased with Squirty’s care. He promised the 4H Center would receive another hatchling to raise—soon.