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Two sea turtles made ill by red tide toxins, recover and are released into the Gulf of Mexico

A group of people wearing blue Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium shirts carry a sea turtle on a beach.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
A loggerhead sea turtle nicknamed Mahomes, who was found dazed and confused on Casey Key after exposure to red tide toxins off Sarasota County earlier this year, was restored to health and released by staff and volunteers of Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and The Florida Aquarium on Anna Maria Island on May 30, 2023.

A pair of sea turtles found dazed and confused by red tide toxins in Sarasota County in February were returned to the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday after being nursed back to health.

A pair of sea turtles found dazed and confused by red tide toxins in Sarasota County in February were released into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday after being nursed back to health.

Nicknamed Valerie and Mahomes, the turtles were cared for by Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital and The Florida Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center in Apollo Beach.

"Every turtle matters as they serve as ambassadors for the critical need to protect and conserve these creatures and the habitats they rely on," said Lynne Byrd, Mote's rehabilitation coordinator. "We are proud to collaborate with The Florida Aquarium in our shared mission to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles. By combining our expertise and resources, we can provide these magnificent creatures with the best possible care, ensuring their recovery and return to the big blue."

Both turtles were released from Anna Maria Island in Manatee County.

Red tides off Sarasota County have been a near-constant fixture since a foot of rain produced by September's Hurricane Ian washed tons of nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico as it drained from the land and runoff took all sorts of detritus with it.

Much of the nutrient pollution is nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers used on residential lawns and in agriculture. The chemicals don't create a red tide bloom, but scientists have proven they can "feed" a fledgling bloom and cause it to become stronger and last longer than it otherwise would.

Valerie was discovered floating and disoriented just off Longboat Key on Feb. 21 and transported to Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital. There, the turtle was found to be suffering from red tide toxins and was treated with injectable antibiotics and subcutaneous fluids as her symptoms improved.

When Valerie arrived at Mote, scientists found that she already had a flipper tag and transponder attached to her by Mote sea turtle researchers in 2019.

A loggerhead turtle wearing a blue satellite tag enters the ocean. A group of people stand in the background.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
A loggerhead nicknamed Mahomes returning to the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday.

The tag gives the turtle a unique barcode number that allows scientists to gain valuable insights into its migratory patterns, growth rates, survival, and details about her reproductive history or lack thereof.

Mahomes was found lethargic and washed up on the beach near Casey Key Road in Sarasota County. Initially admitted to Mote on Feb. 13, the animal was transferred two weeks later to The Florida Aquarium Turtle Rehabilitation Center in Apollo Beach to clear space at Mote for more red-tide-affected sea turtle patients.

Mahomes was treated at The Florida Aquarium as was Valerie to help rid the sea turtle's body of toxins.

Before Tuesday’s release, Mahomes was also outfitted with a satellite tag, which provides additional information about the sea turtle’s diving, feeding, migratory, and activity patterns as well as recording environmental conditions.

The information helps sea turtle researchers better understand the animal’s behavior after being released back into the water, which can help future rehabilitation and conservation efforts meet with greater success.

"Every rehabilitated sea turtle is a symbol of hope for the future of our oceans," Mote’s Byrd said.

Mote released two other loggerhead sea turtles two weeks ago on Lido Key in Sarasota County. Those turtles, too, needed medical help to recover from the effects of red tide toxins.

Those who find an injured or dead sea turtle, dolphin, or whale in the waters off Sarasota or Manatee counties call Mote's 24-hour Stranding Investigations Program at (941) 988-0212. If anywhere else in Florida, call the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s hotline at (888) 404-3922.

A chart featuring seven sea turtle species: hawksbill, flatback, Kemp's ridley, green, loggerhead, leatherback and olive ridley.
A chart of sea turtle species.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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Copyright 2023 WGCU

Tom Bayles