The other day my son fell asleep on my chest. This usually high-test, fast motion, ALL boy 4-year-old for a few, brief moments let me hold him and nurture him “up close and personal.” After a stretch here, a yawn there, and a little contended-sleep drool wipe, the boy was out of my arms, headed off for some great adventure. It reminded me that, all too soon, he’ll be off for good, exploring the world, diving into all it has to offer… without any assistance from me. (Insert mother boo-hooing right here.)
Yesterday I had the express privilege of attending the momentous release of the 1,000th turtle cared for and rehabilitated by the SeaWorld Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Team. It was a time of reflection and celebration for milestones achieved and hard work accomplished. It was one of their “little ones” being let go to explore and discover.
Mr. One Thousand, a.k.a. “Lockjaw,” weighed only 70 pounds upon arrival to SeaWorld in September, 2010. Found by the Sea Turtle Preservation Society of Brevard County, the sub-adult loggerhead (age 20 to 25) was unable to open its jaw to feed. Twice a day the SeaWorld crew performed a type of physical therapy to slowly coax the jaw open. This condition, according to Dan Conklin, one of SeaWorld Orlando’s top sea turtle experts, is usually associated with a red tide event. What made this turtle’s condition a bit unusual was the absence of a red tide around the time the loggerhead was discovered in distress.
After weeks and months of treatment including the gradual prying and exercising of its mouth, and taking medication, and nutritional supplements, “Lockjaw” regained a full range of motion in his* mouth. From needing feeding tubes at first, to then requiring small food items to be cut “flat” when his mouth opened slightly, the turtle eventually began eating “normally.” Within a few months he put on weight and bulked up to what would be normal for a turtle of his age… about 102 pounds at release.
This sub-adult turtle was tagged for future study after release. He is CCar-10514. The first “C” is for C. Caretta which is the genus and the “Car” is for caretta, the species of Atlantic Loggerhead sea turtle (a turtle so nice they named it twice). The 10 is for the year of rescue, 2010, and 514 depicts the database number for animals to be rehabilitated (not just sea turtles, as SeaWorld rescues and rehabilitates many species). Trained observers keep an eye on these endangered creatures and make note of their movements.
Eight sea turtles in all were released at Canaveral National Seashore, the federal preserve, both on the lagoon and ocean sides of the park. Although the turtles would probably find their way back to their birthplace near a sargassum (seaweed) mat, the experts at SeaWorld ensure the turtles are put back as close as possible to where they’re found. Note: Scientists believe they use the magnetic fields in the earth to direct them to their birth beach. Amazing!
The largest of the turtles released yesterday, Lockjaw got a van to himself for the one-hour journey to the shore. (Loggerheads are the largest hard-shelled turtle in the world, so no wonder he was so big!) I was thrilled to get to ride with him, and I admit I stared at the beautiful creature most of the trip, listening to his noisy breath sounds which came were like mini explosions of air on the exhale, a sharp woosh of inhalation to follow, once every 5 minutes or so.
The team created a nest of comfy towels for his ride over, and even tucked him in. My son gave me one of his toy sea turtles to bring along, and the mini-turtle sat nearby, watching his huge friend as we rode off to the release.
I confess I got choked up as each turtle was let go, because the ocean’s a big place. Each turtle was strong, and healthy. Still, even the “big boy” looked pretty darn small next to that sea of blue.
My little guy looks awfully small when he stands at the shoreline, too, looking down at the foam as it laps over his still-chubby feet. Before I care to admit it, though, he’ll be out there… in this big blue world… hopefully strengthened by his parents, and able to swim strong and live long on this big blue planet of ours.
Lockjaw drooled a little bit before doing his flipper-like footed walk. It brought me right back to my slumbering boy right before the blur of pattering feet running away from me. The turtle took his time at first, then pad, pad, padded in the sand headed right for those great big waves in his path.
My son: May you brace yourself for the inevitable waves that will come your way, and be as brave as Lockjaw… overcoming adversity and pressing on with the help of those who love you. And may we, his parents and family and friends, let him go when he’s ready to face all that lies ahead. (Insert mother boo-hooing here, too.)
Goodbye, Lockjaw. Have a great life, and swim strong. The team of caring people who rescued you, and those who knew you only briefly, are rooting for you all the way!
*Loggerhead turtles can live to 70 or 80 years. Sex can only be determined when one has reached maturity, so it isn’t known if Lockjaw is male or female.