Animals | February 25, 2023 10:59 AM | hangbony
MELBOURNE, Fla. – Exhibiting tortoise-like speed, Myrtle the loggerhead sea turtle loitered in her wooden corral before she slowly started creeping across the sand toward the surf.
“Go Myrtle! Go Myrtle! Go Myrtle!” dozens of children chanted in unison, egging on the lethargic reptile.
Dragging her 43-inch-long curving shell across the beach — then pausing for effect at the water’s edge — Myrtle finally lumbered into the Atlantic Ocean this morning to help scientists unravel the mysteries of sea turtle migration.
Myrtle and Dash — a fellow, faster loggerhead — were released amid cheers and applause during the eighth annual Tour de Turtles near Bonsteel Park in Brevard County’s South Beaches. More than 1,000 spectators attended, estimated Dan Evans, Sea Turtle Conservancy technology and research specialist.
The Space Coast turtles will “race” 11 rival reptiles hailing from Vero Beach, Marathon Key, Anna Maria Island, Costa Rica, Panama, Nevis and the Bahamas. All sport satellite transmitters cemented atop their shells.
Sea Turtle Conservancy and University of Central Florida researchers will monitor the turtles’ travels during the next three months using instruments attached to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization weather satellites. The turtle that swims the farthest is declared the winner.
The transmitters may continue sending data for years afterward, providing critical clues on loggerhead migratory patterns. Scientists are still tracking Brevard’s 2014 Tour de Turtles racers:
— Shelley has swam 3,623 miles, moving hundreds of miles offshore of Norfolk, Va.
— Melba has covered 1,977 miles, lingering near Cedar Key in the Gulf of Mexico.
Bonsteel Park and the adjacent Barrier Island Center, which serves as Brevard’s Tour de Turtles headquarters, are nestled within the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Stretching southward into Indian River County, these rural beaches comprise the top loggerhead nesting site in the Western Hemisphere.
As of Friday, refuge officials had documented 12,932 loggerhead nests, 8,938 green turtle nests and 57 leatherback nests thus far this season.
“On this beach for the decades that it’s been monitored, loggerheads have been by far the predominant species. And just within the last few years, the green turtle nesting has shot up so high that we actually had to see a lot of green turtles last night before we found any loggerheads,” Sea Turtle Conservancy Executive Director David Godfrey said.
Godfrey said volunteers captured Myrtle and Dash about 2 a.m. after they had finished nesting. Both turtles laid eggs within a half-mile of the Barrier Island Center.
By 7:45 a.m., Dash was thumping her flippers around the wooden sides of her beach corral, ready to return to the depths. Volunteers placed a white towel atop her reptilian head to help calm her.
Her curving shell measured 37 inches in length. Unlike Myrtle, Dash tore out of her corral in blazing speed — for a land-borne loggerhead, that is — and wasted little time scooting into the surf. Her crawl lasted less than two minutes.
“She’s definitely active. I think Dash is an appropriate name,” Evans said.
“A very noteworthy thing about Dash is her shell. That’s a very unusual pattern. A lot of whites. It’s just gorgeous,” he said.
Evans said Myrtle and Dash are likely 35 to 60 years old.
Myrtle is sponsored by Ripley’s Aquariums, which operates aquatic attractions in Toronto; Gatlinburg, Tenn.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Tour de Turtles organizers will use her trek to raise awareness about plastic debris, which sea turtles commonly eat.
Dash is sponsored by Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Her journey will raise awareness about dangers to turtles posed by commercial longline fisheries.
A drone hovered behind Myrtle during her leisurely crawl, filming footage for an upcoming Tour de Turtles documentary. Other spectator attractions included roasted seaweed snacks, free sea turtle water bottles, and turtle trivia games.
Godfrey said Community Foundation for Brevard has launched a $10,000 Sea Turtle Conservancy endowment program to finance long-term sea turtle research and educational programs along the Space Coast. He hopes the endowment increases someday to $1 million.
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