It took three years, international cooperation and a 4,600-mile journey back to the Gulf of Mexico, but a wayward turtle is returning to the sea this morning.
The endangered Kemp's ridley nicknamed "Johnny Vasco da Gama" was found stranded in 2008 in the Netherlands and rehabilitated in Portugal, according to a news release from Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. The turtle was brought to Mote on Nov. 29 to complete his rehabilitation at the Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital and to be outfitted with a satellite tracking system by Mote's Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program.
Johnny will be released at 9 a.m. from Lido Beach, the news release said, a short distance from Mote's main campus.
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, the NOAA Fisheries Service, the U.S. Embassy in Portugal, the Portuguese airline TAP and Mote.
Records of European strandings of Kemp's ridleys are rare, but are 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 Gulf Stream currents transport young Kemp's ridleys away from their usual coastal habitats along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Seaboard.
The turtle was rescued in November 2008 in the Netherlands, stabilized by the Rotterdam Zoo, sent to the aquarium Oceanário de Lisboa in Portugal the following summer, and transferred to Zoomarine for rehab.
Zoomarine staffers 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, the Zoomarine staff worked with the 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 him 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.
"The most exciting part of Johnny's journey is yet to come," said Sheryan Epperly, sea turtle program leader 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."
Johnny was flown from Portugal to Miami on Nov. 28 in cabin space donated by TAP and accompanied by caregivers from Zoomarine. The turtle was driven to Mote on Nov. 29 by FWC emoployees and was welcomed to his new home by staffers from Mote, FWC, NOAA Fisheries Service, TAP and Zoomarine.