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A Long Road Home
Published Monday, July 27, 2009 10:10 AM
By Paul Zoeller
Summerville Journal Scene
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As a crowd of about 500 cheered him on, Wadmalaw completed his long journey home Sunday afternoon at Kiawah Island. Wadmalaw, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle was released back to the ocean after spending two years at the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Hospital recovering from a fishing hook lodged in its mouth.

Though Wadmalaw was one of three sea turtles released on Sunday, it was the crowd favorite as it headed for the water. The sea turtle has been a patient at the hospital longer than any other and was close to death before recovering and finally being released.

Everyone watches and takes pictures as Kiawah, a loggerhead sea turtle makes his way towards the water Sunday on Kiawah Island.

The Sea Turtle hospital, located at the South Carolina Aquarium, started in 2000 and is staffed by a team of doctors and volunteers to aid in the recovery of sick and injured sea turtles. With the release of the three on Sunday, the hospital has saved and released 42 sea turtles since opening its doors.

The Preparation

Last year I got the opportunity to visit the Sea Turtle Hospital and was amazed at the work they do there. Though I was happy to see the work they do, I was more excited to see how the work pays off with the release of the three turtles.

Sunday afternoon Kelly Thorvalson, Sea Turtle Program Coordinator and volunteers met at the hospital and prepared the sea turtles for transport to Kiawah Island for the release.

Kelly Thorvalson -- Sea Turtle Program Coordinator -- lifts Winyah, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle out of its tank and into a container.

The Kemp's ridleys were first and flapped their flippers as if they knew it was time to go home. Each turtle was put in a container and Thorvalson rubbed Vaseline on their shells and covered them with damp towels to help them retain water while traveling to the beach.

Kelly Thorvalson rubs Vaseline on the shell of Kiawah to lock in moisture while he is transported to Kiawah Island for release.

As soon as the containers were packed and loaded, everyone climbed into the Department of Natural Resources truck and headed for Beachwalker County Park on Kiawah Island. During the trip, everyone recalled memories of Wadmalaw during its long stay at the hospital.

From surgeries and physical therapy to forced feedings and finally progress -- everyone had a memory of Wadmalaw as they nursed it back to health. Its hard not to get sentimental about a sea turtle they have worked so hard to save for two years.

Charlotte Hope, biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, helps carry sea turtles to her truck for transport.

The Release

Beachwalker County Park was the final destination for the turtle release for a couple of reasons. Thorvalson said they picked the site because few fishermen are around and they like to try and release local turtles where they were found. She also added they picked 3:00 p.m. so the receding tide would help carry the turtles out to sea.

Upon entering the park, a Travel Channel photographer and I rode in the back of the truck with the turtles. Crowds of people were heading towards the beach, once they learned we were riding with the three sea turtles, they literally chased the truck in hopes of getting a quick look at the turtles.

It was at that point the other photographer and I realized these were not just sea turtles, they were rock stars.

About 500 gather to watch as the turtles are unloaded and released at Beachwalker County Park on Kiawah Island.

Hundreds lined the roped-off area armed with cameras and cell phones as if the Jonas Brothers were making an appearance. As the truck pulled onto the beach they screamed and cheered and they only got louder as the time got closer to release the first turtle. As hundreds lined the ropes, dozens of media photographers stood just inside the ropes waiting for the stars to appear.

Kelly Thorvalson lifts Wadmalaw as it seems to wave to the crowd before release.

Wadmalaw was the first to be released. It was paraded around as everyone waved and snapped pictures of the six pound sea turtle. Like a star on the red carpet, Wadmalaw was carried along the ropes by Thorvalson so everyone could see the turtle.

As Wadmalaw passes by, everyone takes pictures.

Ethan Harrison, 7, and his mother Shelley traveled from Canada to participate in the release. Ethan has donated over $2,000 to the sea turtle hospital through fundraising. During his first visit to the hospital, he met Wadmalaw which inspired him to continue raising money to help save the turtles.

On Sunday, Ethan got the honor of carrying Wadmalaw down to the water for the release. A large smile spread across his face as Ethan walked with Wadmalaw. The turtle splashed its flippers around as it crawled to the water before disappearing into the surf.

Even after the small Kemp's ridley sea turtle was gone the crowd still waved and cheered.

Ethan Harrison, 7, of Ontario, Canada carries Wadmalaw as he and his mother, Shelley, walk to the water for the release.

The next sea turtle to be released, Kiawah, was not as small as Wadmalaw. It took a group of staff and volunteers to get the 80 pound loggerhead off of the truck. Such a large turtle was hard enough to carry much less parade around so two volunteers headed straight to the water with him.

Interns Courtney Boggs, left, and Sarah Dale carry Kiawah towards the water.

Slowly making his way to the water, Kiawah was just as interested in the crowd as they were with him. Two interns kept bringing him closer to the water because he would stop and look around or turn and crawl towards the cheering crowds. Some sea turtles sure milk their 15 minutes of fame.

Tracks left by Kiawah as he headed towards the ocean.

Finally, Winyah was paraded around for the crowd which was a great way for all the kids attending to get a close up look. The sea turtle didn't waste anytime getting to the water after it was placed on the ground.

Sharon Wood, of Columbia traveled to Kiawah to experience her first sea turtle release.

The three sea turtles released on Sunday represented a small victory of the staff and volunteers at the hospital. New arrivals keep the sea turtle hospital full and the staff can enjoy the view from the beach for a moment before heading back to work.

Paul Zoeller is a freelance photographer new to the area. Do you have an idea for a new blog or a question about a current blog? If you do contact Zoeller at

Comments (1)

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Good Story and Great Pictures
Tuesday, July 28, 2009 12:37 PM

What a refreshing change from all the doom and gloom we usually get to read about. I know bad things happen around here but there are positive things too and it was nice to read about one this morning.

Posted by: Optimism is contagious

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