ISLE OF PALMS -- Hundreds of onlookers cheered on the 330-pound sea turtle Mama Pritchard as she lumbered down a sand runway, fitting for the celebrity she had become.
When she made the plunge into the ocean at Isle of Palms County Park on Saturday, the crowd gave her a thunderous round of applause.
Mama Pritchard spent nearly two years in the South Carolina Aquarium's Sea Turtle Hospital after being brought in by state Department of Natural Resources officials. She was found on Pritchards Island, unable to lay her eggs and suffering from two old boat-strike wounds on her carapace near her tail.
Kelly Thorvalson, manager of the sea turtle rescue program, said many people got to know and love the turtle. "This turtle definitely has a lot of notoriety," she said. "After 21 months, she's become the star."
Mama Pritchard still had large gashes in her shell, which Thorvalson said would never grow back. But a hard layer of keratin, which is what fingernails are made of, had grown over the surface of the wounds, she said.
B.J. Ruddy brought his sons Connor, 9, and Will, 5, to watch the turtle return to the ocean.
Connor said he thought is was really cool.
The family visited the turtle in the hospital this past winter, so it was wonderful to see it released, Ruddy said, adding that it was an amazing sight and that he was moved by it. "It took all the cynicism out of my body," he said.
Thorvalson said turtle-release events are beginning to draw larger crowds. After people see it once, they want to see it again, she said.
Saturday's release was the first of the season, she said. But there will be more in the coming months.
She thinks that once people see a turtle release, they likely will be more careful about protecting the marine environment in which the turtles live.
As for Mama Pritchard, Thorvalson thinks she has a good chance of living a good life back in her own habitat. She's robust and healthy, she said. And she has produced egg follicles.
Nesting season is right around the corner. "We're hoping she's on her way to find a mate," Thorvalson said.
For more about the sea turtle hospital at the SC Aquarium, go to scaquarium.org/STR
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or email@example.com.