by Emily Woodward
Rider, a loggerhead sea turtle which spent the last three years at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium, was returned to his natural home in the ocean.
“It went well,” said Devin Dumont, head curator at the aquarium. “Rider seemed a little unsure at first, but after we placed him in the water, his instincts kicked in and he went on his way.”
Prior to the release, Rider was tagged by Joe Pfaller, research director of the Caretta Research Project, so that he can be identified if encountered again. After receiving the tags, the 50-pound sea turtle was loaded onto a skiff and transported to Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Once at the beach, Dumont and Lisa Olenderski, assistant curator at the aquarium, lifted him from his tub and placed him on the sand. Rider crawled forward a few inches before stopping, as if not quite sure what to do next. With a little help from Dumont and Olenderksi, Rider eventually made it to the surf where he swam in circles a few times, orienting himself to his new surroundings, before disappearing into the waves.
Rider arrived at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium as a straggler discovered during a nest excavation by members of Caretta Research Project who monitor the sea turtle nests on Wassaw Island. Stragglers that don’t make it out of the nest with the rest of the hatchlings typically have a much lower chance of survival. By giving them a temporary home at the aquarium, it increases the likelihood that they’ll make it in the wild.
Rider played an important role educating visitors to the UGA Aquarium. As an ambassador sea turtle, he was featured in multiple marine education classes and outreach programs for all age groups, from pre-K to adult.
“We estimate that Rider saw about 70,000 visitors,” said Olenderski. “If each of those people left knowing just one new fact about sea turtles or gained a new appreciation for them, it’s all worth it.”
In preparation for the release, Rider was fed live food, such as blue crabs and mussels, to practice active foraging and hunting skills. Prior to the release, the aquarium staff also received approval from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Terry Norton, a veterinarian, and director and founder of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island.
“We’re always appreciative of the opportunity to work with multiple partners on the coast through our ambassador sea turtle program,” said Dumont. “Because of this collaborative effort, Rider has a much stronger chance of making it to adulthood.”