Master Naturalists: Amazing turtle recovery

Taking part in the release of Flip, a juvenile Kemp's ridley sea turtle making her way to the Gulf at Padre Island National Seashore, from left, are Marjolein Kemma, Sea Life; Robyn Cobb, U.S. Fish and Wildlife; Tony Amos, Animal Rehabilitation Keep; Donna Shaver, National Park Service; Amanda Terry, Animal Rehabilitation Keep; Karen Rifenbury, Sea Life; and Ian Schouller, Sea Life.

This is one of those hard-to-believe stories: a juvenile tropical sea turtle showing up off the coast of the Netherlands after drifting in warm ocean currents for no-one-knows-how-long and being washed ashore injured, starving and in shock, but alive.

Then it gets better. The turtle, an endangered female Kemp's ridley, is rescued and nursed back from the brink of death by Sea Life Scheveningen in Holland. After months of rehabilitation, the now-healthy turtle is flown to Houston. From Houston, a team from Sea Life Grapevine (Texas) moves Flip, as she is now called, to be checked out by experts at the Port Aransas Animal Rehabilitation Keep (the ARK).

The good news is she is fine and has been turned over to the Sea Turtle Recovery Program at Padre Island National Seashore and was recently released to the wild with lots of public fanfare. Flip now carries a tracking transmitter so her movements can be monitored in the Gulf.

This story has already been reported elsewhere, in the Fort Worth Star Telegram and on television on KIII Corpus Christi. What is extraordinary is how this young, small (14-inches long and 15-inches wide) turtle did what she did and survived, hopefully to mature and breed in warm Gulf waters in a few years.

Female Kemp's turtles do migrate annually along the Gulf Coast from Rancho Nuevo, Tamaulipas, in Mexico, to the Gulf shores of Florida, following the onshore current.

If, however, a turtle drifts too far out and gets caught in the current in the Florida Strait, it will be swept into the Gulf Stream and propelled north at an average speed of 5.6 mph. That takes any tropical creature up the U.S. East Coast and eventually to the Arctic. Young Kemp's turtles go into shock, become torpid, and may drown at 50 degrees. So, this would normally be a death sentence.

However, Flip was lucky. The distance drifting the Gulf Stream, North Atlantic Current and North Atlantic Drift is in excess of 4,800 miles to small-current back eddies spinning along the Netherlands coast. Using average speeds for those major currents, it took Flip 400-plus days to drift from the Florida Strait, past Labrador, south of Iceland, past Norway, to near the Hague, Netherlands, on Dec. 10, 2011.

Average seawater temperature for December at the Hague is 59 degrees. (15 degrees Celsius), 9 Celsius above fatal levels for Kemp's A few weeks later, she would have died. No surprise that she was in sorry shape. However, she was lucky to be found, recovered and taken to a facility to care for her. How bad was it? We do not have all the details. But Flip did not start to eat for over a month.

Who gets credit? Flip, for being so tenacious. Sea Life Scheveningen gets lots for its tender loving care; its collaborators - Sea Life Grapevine, the National Park Service, Sea Turtle Recovery Program and its director, Dr. Donna Shaver; University of Texas Marine Science Institute/The ARK and its incomparable befriender of wildlife, Tony Amos - all deserve credit. The Netherlands government and KLM airlines that flew Flip home, both deserve kudos.

Finally, the unnamed beach walkers who saw this far-from-home waif, who responded and gave her a chance to live. True naturalists all. Thanks.

Sources: utmsi.utexas.edu/outreach/animal-rehabilitation-keep.html; Synopsis of Biological Data on the Kemp's Ridley Turtle, Lepidochelys kempi (Garman, 1880), NOAA Technical Memorandum, NMFS-SEFSC-34; facebook.com/pages/Padre-Island-NS.../149675511741530

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.