For nearly two years, Neptune the turtle has swam in the comfy and safe confines of a science museum exhibit.
His egg was found on a Boca Raton beach and brought to Florida Atlantic University researchers. After Neptune hatched, he was brought to the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, where he munched on daily buffets of shrimp, crab and herring. He honed his social skills while keeping just enough snappiness for a turtle.
Now Neptune, at nearly 35 pounds with a sturdy shell, is big enough to return to the wild.
And that’s what happened on Wednesday morning, when Neptune suddenly found himself scooped from his museum tank and plopped into a bucket. From there, Neptune was taken to his new life: first to a Florida Fish and Wildlife field station, then to the Sebastian Inlet in Melbourne Beach.
“At the end, it’s a good thing for him,” said Matthew Dumler, the museum’s life science manager. “I’m pretty confident he’ll do fine.”
This is the sixth time in about 10 years that Dumler has watched a museum turtle return to the ocean. The museum has a permit from Fish and Wildlife that allows it to hold one loggerhead turtle for educational purposes.
“I like to get the animals back to nature,” he said.
Fish and Wildlife is responsible for giving rescue turtles to educational centers and choosing where the turtles are released when they’re ready, Dumler said. The turtles are measured every two weeks, and as soon as the turtle shell is 45 centimeters long, the agency is notified. The turtles are then released into the ocean, where they can live another 60 to 100 years and reach an average of about 275 pounds.
“An average year for us in terms of releases excluding hatchlings —is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of about 200 turtles from rehab every year,” said Meghan Koperski, a scientist in the agency’s Marine Turtle Protection Program. She said the release location is determined based on where the turtles were originally found and the conditions of the waters around Florida.
While loggerhead nests are the most common type of nest found in Florida, the species is still considered threatened in the state and endangered around the world. That’s part of the reason why the Fort Lauderdale museum, 401 SW Second Ave., has hosted a turtle for at least 20 years, said Marlene Janetos, the museum’s vice president of visitors services, marketing and communications.
“It helps [visitors] understand the importance of sea turtles,” she said. “It helps us in those teaching moments.”
Visitors signed a card on display next to Neptune’s enclosure wishing the turtle the best in his move to the sea.
“I guess it’s gonna be another experience with him being in the wild because he’ll be getting a new life,” said Renatta Lopez, 12.
She was one of several students who gathered around Neptune’s temporary enclosure to say goodbye. As campers at the museum’s Camp Discovery, many walked past Neptune as they explored the museum.
“I think he’s going to be fine,” said Serenity Walker, 10. “He can find new friends and maybe have little sea turtles of his own.”
If Neptune ever runs into trouble in the wild, he’ll have a tag that identifies him and his old friends at the museum. But don’t expect the turtle to be homesick.
“They swim off pretty quick,” Dumler said. “They don’t come back to say hi or anything.”