CLEARWATER — When Tina was found stranded on a New Port Richey beach in April of 2012, she was starved, covered in algae and unable to regulate her own blood sugar.
Now 40 years old, the 200-pound loggerhead sea turtle has fully recovered and finally splashed back into the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday with newfound independence.
After being lowered onto the sand by volunteers, interns and staff from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which rehabilitated Tina, she quickly flopped toward the water. The gathered crowd of beachgoers applauded when she finally took to the sea. Some of Tina's handlers were teary-eyed as they watched her swim away.
“It's really emotional to finally get to see her go off into the ocean,” said Bryan MacNeill, an intern-turned-volunteer at the aquarium. “It's kind of like letting your kids go off to school for the first time.”
Loggerhead sea turtles are an endangered species. They're vulnerble to red tide, Fibropapilloma, boat strikes and monofilament entanglement, among other things, but the source of Tina's ailment remains a mystery.
Sea turtles found along Florida's coast will end up at the Clearwater facility, which also nurses dozens of injured sea turtles, dolphins, otters and other marine-dwelling creatures back to health. Some stay until they're healthy enough to be released. Others, including the famed prosthetic-tailed dolphin “Winter,” stay permanently if they're deemed unable to survive in the wild. Tina, the eighth sea turtle to be released this year, grew strong enough to fend for herself in the water after months of treatment for a condition similar to diabetes.
“She was extremely emaciated,” said Adrienne Cardwell, who manages the aquarium's sea turtle rehabilitation program. “She just needed some proper nutrition and to train her body how to produce insulin and glucose so she could sustain.”
The lethargy and malnourishment appeared to be long gone for her as she instinctively pushed toward the water with her flippers.
“She smelled that saltwater, I think, on the drive over here, and she was ready to jump out of the truck at any minute,” Cardwell said. “I think she knew where she was going.”
Tina was one of more than 52 turtles being taken care of at the Clearwater aquarium. Staff and volunteers who helped move her from one of the aquarium's pickups to the water's edge had distinct memories of the turtle.
“She always ate well. She loved her squid,” Cardwell said. “She definitely had a personality so she was challenging in all aspects.”
Others remember the noises she made.
“Probably her hissing,” said intern Lori Vining, a Florida Gulf Coast University sophomore. “She was a very big one for hissing. She was very vocal.”
Vining, who has been at the facility since mid-May, said saying goodbye to Tina was a little tough.
“It made me tear up, I'm not going to lie,” she said “It's probably my favorite experience of the whole summer.”
That emotion was not lost on dozens of beachgoers who gathered on the shore to watch the massive seafaring reptile excitedly lumber toward its newfound freedom.
“We've been to the Clearwater Aquarium and seen them, but nothing like this on the beach,” said Sonya Lott, 40, who has been vacationing in Clearwater with her family from Decatur, Ala., over the past 13 years. “It's an inspiration to know that there are people like that, that care to bring them out here, and release them like that.”
Now that Tina has been able to self-regulate her blood glucose levels for about four months, her caretakers say she should be able to live a normal loggerhead's life.
“She's probably going to get as far away from us as possible,” Cardwell said. “She's going to find some food. She's a female, so hopefully she'll find some boys to greet with and we'll see her in some other capacity some day.”
She could even come back to an area beach to nest, Cardwell said.