BOCA RATON, Fla. – It was a turtle emancipation.
Over 600 baby sea turtles got a second chance at life Monday when they were released into the ocean off of Boca Raton by Ft. Lauderdale Coast Guard and local nature center officials.
With the odds against them — only about 1 in 1,000 sea turtles survive to adulthood — the hatchlings had missed their instinctual dash to the ocean and had been collected after routine beach nest inspections by the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton.
Stored in several plastic bins and cramped on top of each other as when they first hatch, the tiny turtles about 3 inches long were brought on board by members of the Coast Guard.
Most of the hatchlings were baby loggerhead sea turtles, but four young sea turtles that had been rehabilitated at the nature center also made their way back into the ocean.
According to the World Wildlife Fund's website, sea turtles are classified as endangered, often poached for their eggs and meat, or killed for religious of medicinal reasons.
They are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 and by Florida's Marine Turtle Protection Act.
David Anderson, a turtle specialist with the center, said hatchlings often miss their "swim frenzy" after becoming disoriented by artificial light or being unable to crawl out of the nest.
"Hatchlings find their way to the beach crawling to the brightest horizon, but now the land is the brightest horizon," he said.
Many Florida counties and cities have ordinances against light reaching beaches, Boca Raton among them.
After hatching, the turtles swim a "treacherous journey" of several miles until finding seaweed, Anderson said.
For several hours, the U.S. Coast Guard boat wandered miles off the coast looking for seaweed, where the turtles live their first years of life. Hope started to wane.
After searching almost three hours, officials spotted a patch and the emancipation began.
Anderson and three members of his staff took turns on the sides of the boat releasing the hatchlings, which blended into the seaweed.
Laurie Herrick, a turtle specialist with the center, said she hopes the joint effort will increase the turtles' chances of survival into adulthood, which usually takes about 25 years.
Anderson said the center tries to release the turtles on the beach, but after exhausting their energy trying to find the water, the hatchlings are unwilling to swim.
"These guys are little stragglers left behind," he said. "We give every turtle a chance."