Big Mama Pritchard, rehabilitated loggerhead sea turtle, returns to Pritchards Island to lay eggs

The sea turtle called Mama Pritchard was released in April 2010 after spending nearly two years in the S.C. Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital. Buy this photo

Big Mama Pritchard always was going to live up to her name — if she lived.

Turtle release

WHAT: A loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley and green turtle are scheduled to be released to the ocean after rehabilitation from injuries at the South Carolina Aquarium.

WHEN: Wednesday, 10 a.m.

WHERE: Isle of Palms County Park, 1 14th Ave., Isle of Palms.

WHAT TO KNOW: Parking fees will apply at the park and other lots. Releases are well attended; carpool if possible and arrive early.

The huge loggerhead sea turtle had scrambled up the remote Pritchards Island beach a few times in 2008, trying to lay a nest. But she couldn’t. She was just too weak from the two jagged, oozing boat propeller wounds in her shell.

Volunteers captured her and sent her to the South Carolina Aquarium to save her life. The 350-plus pound creature became the largest turtle ever treated there. And even though she was cut through nearly to the spine, Mama Pritchard laid more than 80 eggs while under treatment, before being returned to the sea in 2010.

So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that DNA testing on a sea turtle nest laid this summer on Pritchards Island near Beaufort revealed the eggs to be hers: Given a second chance at not only her life but the survival of her species, Mama brought it home.

“It’s not surprising, it’s just exciting,” said Kelly Thorvalson, aquarium sea turtle rescue program manager. Big Mama made a big impression on staff, and they had wondered what became of her.

“She was just a beautiful, beautiful animal. Impressive. Resilient. She could be the poster child for the resiliency we know these turtles have,” Thorvalson said. “This is why we do what we do.”

The loggerhead is a huge, long-lived sea turtle that crawls ashore in the spring and summer to lay eggs in the dunes. It is a threatened species, thought to be in gradual decline.

Half the loggerhead nests outside of Florida are laid in South Carolina, and the creature has become a beloved totem of the coast here, its nests and tiny hatchlings watched over by an army of volunteers.

Researchers think young turtles “imprint” a home beach in their memories and return to nest at a beach in the same region when they mature — 35 years and thousands of sea miles later. After years of groundbreaking conservation work here, the first signs are appearing that the species might be turning a corner on its recovery.

But nobody can really estimate how many loggerheads are out there — critical information for managers trying to judge decline or improvement. The only real data comes from the nest counts. Nobody really knows why the nesting numbers can vary so widely — literally by the thousands — year to year.

In fact, though it’s considered a given that mature females return to nest along the beaches where they were hatched, nobody could really say precisely how they do.

All those unknowns are big questions when you’re trying to manage the recovery of a species. To get a surer read, genetic testing samples are being pulled from egg shells in South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina. Tens of thousands have been pulled so far and more than 5,500 females identified.

One of them is Mama Pritchard, whose DNA was pulled while in treatment at the aquarium. She appears to have laid two nests on Pritchards Island so far this year. The island is pretty definitely home: She was first tagged there in 2002 and respotted in 2004 before the 2008 incident.

To hear she is back “is very, very cool,” said DNR biologist Jenna Cormany.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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