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Leatherback turtle released into the wild


The leatherback turtle that stranded itself on Big Hickory Island in Lee County was returned to the sea on Thursday.


Hayley Rutger, a spokeswoman for Mote Marine Laboratory, said the turtle, nicknamed "Lizzy," didn't show any signs of illness after blood tests. She was taken 23.5 miles off St. Petersburg in a boat and released at 2:10 p.m. in 66 feet of water.


"She slid off the back of the boat, went into the water and surfaced a couple of times for some good deep breaths. She did everything that she was supposed to," said Mote veterinarian Dr. Andy Stamper. "And it looks like she oriented herself in the right direction: south."


Stamper said other leatherbacks have not been so fortunate.


"For my first patient out of vet school in 1993 -- my first day of work, in fact -- I was called about a stranded leatherback. That turtle had crab trap lines wrapped around both fore flippers and they were necrotic (dead). I had to euthanize that turtle. Seeing this leatherback released -- knowing she's an adult nesting female that will contribute to the population -- it feels like I've come full circle."


The staff at Mote cleaned a wound on Lizzy's left rear flipper and provided antibiotics, Rutger said in a press release. They found no severe injuries or signs of disease.


While it would have been ideal for the turtle to remain at Mote for several more days for additional blood tests to be analyzed, current weather patterns and the difficulty of accommodating this particular species of turtle mean that it is in the animal's best interest to release it as soon as possible, Stamper said.


It's possible Lizzy was trying to nest when she was discovered on the beach.


"That would be a very unusual behavior at this time of year, but reports about the way the turtle was acting on the beach sound as if she could have been performing nesting behaviors," Stamper said. "We think at this point -- since she's not showing signs of infection or severe injuries -- that the best course of action for her own well being is to release her."


Lizzy's nesting history remains unknown. She has an identification tag that was initially given as part of a group of tags to a researcher in 1999 in Colombia, according to Rhonda Bailey, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Sea Turtle Program. But that doesn't mean the turtle was tagged then and there.


Mote is asking beachgoers and coastal residents to alert wildlife specialists if the turtle comes ashore again.


If Lizzy or another stranded or dead turtle, dolphin or whale is seen in Sarasota or Manatee county waters, Rutger said to stay at least 30 feet away from the animal and call Mote's Stranding Investigations Program, a 24-hour response service, at (941) 988-0212.


If Lizzy or a stranded sea animal is seen outside of Sarasota or Manatee counties, or if a stranded or dead manatee is sighted anywhere in state waters, call the FWC Wildlife Alert hotline at (888) 404-FWCC (3922).


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