On Saturday, the staff at Bald Point State Park was amazed by a huge turnout for a turtle release party.
Event organizer Dustin Allen, a park spokesman, said the park normally has 300 visitors on a busy weekend. Park staff thought they might see 500 to 700 for the release of Allie, the turtle. More than 1,500 turned out.
Allen said this was the first event hosted by Bald Point its 13 year history and the first collaboration with the Gulf Specimens Marine Lab. The park provided a venue for the party and the Gulf Lab arranged for publicity. Two turtles released Saturday had both received medical treatment at the lab.
Advertising, including two Tallahassee billboards, promised that Allie, a loggerhead turtle, would be released at 2 p.m. About 30 minutes before Allie’s return to the Gulf, Jack Rudloe, director of the Gulf Lab, released a small Kemp’s Ridley turtle that was found with a fishhook in its mouth about a week earlier.
Volunteers from the park, the lab and the Alligator Point volunteer turtlers collaborated to make the day special.
In preparation for the event, park staff created a temporary trail of Mobi-Mat, a strong recycled polyester fabric, to the beach to protect the dunes and make the event ADA compliant. Allen said Bald Point brought in extra wheelchairs designed for beach use. He said attendees with limited mobility expressed their gratitude for the consideration.
As the crowd amassed on the Bald Point beach, things began to get rowdy. With only three paid staff members, the park relied heavily on volunteers for parking and crowd control. Volunteers attempted to manage the multitude and shoo them back from the proposed release point and out of the water.
One volunteer repeatedly shouted “Get out of the water. She won’t know the difference between you and her lunch.” He was largely ignored.
Children and adults remained in the water throughout the release in spite of pleas and warnings that they were violating Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rules.
Rangers were able to clear the area directly in front of Allie and her release went well. She was off without a glance back, resurfacing once to the delight of onlookers.
Allen said if the park hosts another event, Bald Point will definitely borrow additional staff from other parks.
“We think it went well, all things considered,” said Allen. “The turtle was safe. We didn’t have any traffic mishaps and nobody got hurt. This was definitely a learning experience.”
The loggerhead turtle had been found by commercial fisherman in Alligator Harbor who turned the distressed animal over to Rudloe’s lab in hopes it could be saved.
Rudloe said at the lab, Allie gained her target weight for release, and the mass in her chest disappeared, during her year-long rehabilitation.
“This represents a major triumph,” he said. “It is a story of uncommon cooperation – commercial fishermen working side-by-side with biologists.”
Loggerheads are one of five species of sea turtle that nest on Florida’s shores; all are endangered. The communities of Alligator Point and Bald Point hosted a record-breaking 47 nests during last year’s season, according to Bill Wargo, Alligator Point Sea Turtle Patrol.
Wargo advocates keeping the beaches in their natural state, the best protection for the endangered animals being minimal disruption of their breeding habitats. He reports that area residents are largely supportive of protection efforts, and consider wildlife an essential part of the community.
“Sea turtles are important sentinels,” says Wargo. “They let us know what is happening in the environment. Ultimately, what is best for them is best for us.”