Massive turtle release at Cape San Blas

The hundreds of formerly cold-stunned turtles came faster than the spellbound kids gathered for their release could name them.

PORT ST. JOE — At first, a small group of children tried to come up with a name for each of the 300-plus sea turtles workers and volunteers were releasing into the Gulf of Mexico.

“That one’s Timmy,” one child shouted as one formerly cold-stunned turtle went by.

“That one’s Tommy,” another said.

But soon the sea turtles, flapping their flippers as harried Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission workers and volunteers speed-walked passed a crowd of several hundred, were coming faster than the children could name them.

The sea turtles — which included greens, Kemp’s Ridleys and loggerheads — have spent the past few weeks recovering from the ordeal at Gulf World Marine Institute, first warming up on dry land and then in tanks of gradually warming water to prepare them for re-entry in the Gulf, which is significantly warmer than the bays many were found in.

“They’ll be fine in the Gulf,” said FWC research scientist Allen Foley. “A lot of them will go back in the bay, but it’ll probably be a while.”

“Hopefully,” he added.

Finding the frozen turtles has been a major operation, ongoing as recently as Friday, involving several agencies and a lot of time patrolling the waters. But getting them back to the Gulf was its own major operation.

A little after 2 p.m., two trucks arrived in Cape San Blas filled with stacked crates of turtles.

Each turtle, Gulf World Marine Institute stranding coordinator Lauren Albrittian explained to volunteers, had to be unboxed, double checked and scanned before it was carried past the crowd and released to the Gulf.

“Smile, but don’t pose,” she reminded the volunteers. “It holds the process up, and we want to get the turtles to the water.”

By the time the turtles arrived, the crowd of several hundred spectators was almost too large for the strip of beach. Luckily, there were plenty of turtles for people to see.

“I like the flippers,” said 6-year-old Dexter Wise, who loves sea turtles and had never been so close before. “I saw the barnacles on its shell.”

His little sister, Charlie, was also thrilled.

“I like to call them cutie,” she said.

Several hundred more sea turtles are still at Gulf World. About 50 of them have ongoing medical issues that need to be addressed, but the rest will be released “as soon as we can,” according to Foley.

“We’ll release more tomorrow,” he said. “We’re trying to get them all out.”

The other releases, however, will be done in a private area.