500 well-wishers cheer 7 turtles’ return to sea

Eclipse, a hybrid sea turtle, makes its way into the ocean Sunday at Isle of Palms County Park. The rare hybrid was one of six turtles nursed back to health and returned to the ocean.

A woman was walking toward the beach at Isle of Palms County Park Sunday morning and saw several hundred people gathered by the water.

At first she thought it was one of those outdoor baptisms.

Instead, about 500 people were there to watch six rescued sea turtles released back into the ocean.

“I can’t believe all this fuss about turtles,” she said.

Indeed, it might be surprising to some to find out that turtle releases are becoming a spectator sport in the Lowcountry. The crowds just keep getting bigger every time the staff and volunteers from the S.C. Aquarium sea turtle hospital release a new batch back into the water.

“Turtles have been around longer than dinosaurs,” said Kate Dittloff, an aquarium staff member. “It just shows their resilience. And I think people have a large respect for that. I think they also think it’s just really cool to actually see something that was so close to death be totally revitalized and basically be brought back to 100 percent health and able to go back into the ocean. I think it’s very inspiring for folks.”

Sue Tedesco of Mount Pleasant agreed, “I think there’s something about the triumph of being injured and being released back into the water that kind of resonates in everybody’s spirit,” she said as she waited for the turtles to arrive.

The line of cars started forming outside the park’s gates at 8:30 a.m. By 9 a.m., traffic was backing up on the connector and down 14th street. The park normally opens at 10 a.m. The chains came off Sunday at 9:15 a.m. and the cars poured in.

The turtles arrived in crates at 10:30 a.m. Little River was a 73-pound loggerhead who was found floating in Little River near the North Carolina border May 27, 2011. Her shell had three boat-propeller strikes, and one of her front flippers was partially amputated.

Mason, Eclipse, Andrew, Eastham, Innis and Sampson were brought in late last year from the Cape Cod coast, where they were stunned by the cold, hypothermic and unable to swim. Eclipse is a rare hybrid, a cross between a loggerhead and a green sea turtle. The other five are Kemp’s ridleys.

All six swam away into the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday morning, to the cheers of the crowd.

“We’re all God’s creatures,” said Craig Fincher of Dallas, N.C.

“We’ve got to co-exist,” added Dan Roberts of Charlotte, who also owns a house on the Isle of Palms.

It costs about $36 a day to treat each sea turtle in the hospital, which adds up to about $321,000 a year, according to the aquarium.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly stated the number of turtles that were released. The aquarium had planned to release six turtles but ended up releasing seven.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.