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Turtle's release draws crowd

The loggerhead, nursed back to health at the Marine Aquarium, returns to the wild.

Published June 15, 2007

Mackenzie, a loggerhead turtle found floating listlessly in the surf near Caladesi Island State Park in November, heads out to sea on Clearwater Beach on Thursday.
[Times photo: Julia Kumari Drapkin]

CLEARWATER - The scantily dressed crowd mobbed the shiny white vehicle when it pulled up.

Inside, the celebrity waited to be freed after a long time in isolation.

The paparazzi snapped photos and TV cameras rolled.

No, it wasn't Paris Hilton getting out of jail.

It was Mackenzie, a young loggerhead turtle being released Thursday on Clearwater Beach after seven months recuperating from lethargic loggerhead syndrome at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Even before workers lifted 100-pound Mackenzie from the bed of the pickup truck, the turtle appeared to flap its flippers with nervous excitement.

Aquarium volunteers provided crowd control, clearing a path for Mackenzie, keeping scores of women in bikinis and men in board shorts at bay.

When the turtle was placed on the sand near the water's edge, it seemed confused, first heading north up the beach toward the skim boarders. Seconds later, it veered west, plunging into the water.

"Go! Go! Go!" young men chanted.

And go it did, disappearing into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico in less than 20 seconds.

Watching the release was exciting for Dylan Marsolek, 13, who was visiting from Plantation.

"It was really cool, " he said.

"It's nice to see a marine animal being released back into its natural habitat, " said his friend Shane Armbrister, 19, also of Plantation.

Like most rescued loggerheads, Mackenzie was released close to where it was found. The young turtle turned up on Nov. 22, floating listlessly in the surf off Caladesi Island State Park.

Scientists say they do not really know the loggerhead's gender or how old it is, just that it is a "sub adult."

The turtle was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, said Dave Yates, chief executive officer of the aquarium, adding its condition could have been caused by Red Tide. "She wouldn't eat or move. We put her on three or four antibiotics. It took her two to three months to get better."

The turtle spent its time at the aquarium in a blue plastic tub containing 4 feet of water.

When it saw open water on Thursday, it bolted.

Not only was the turtle looking for freedom, it was looking for a snack.

There was no room service for Mackenzie at the aquarium that morning. It had been denied its favorite meal of a pound of herring and 21/2 pounds of capelin.

"They don't feed them the morning they are released, " aquarium volunteer Peggy Cutkomp said. Experts want the turtles to be hungry so they will be more inclined to leave the shore area and go out and hunt for some lunch.

Cutkomp would like to see Mackenzie return to North Pinellas, but for a more joyous reason.

"We hope she becomes a mother at 30 and comes back to this beach" to lay her eggs, she said.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or

Fast Facts:

About loggerheads

- Florida's most common sea turtle, though classified as a threatened species.

- Adults can weigh 200 to 350 pounds and can reach 3 feet in length.

- In the U.S., 90 percent of all loggerheads nest in Florida. Females return to their nesting beach every two or more years from April through September. There, they generally lay four to seven nests, one about every 14 days. Each nest contains on average of 100 to 126 eggs that hatch in about 60 days.

- Biologists estimate only one of 1, 000 hatchlings lives to sexual maturity.

Sources: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and Mote Marine Laboratory.

[Last modified June 15, 2007, 06:52:44]

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