Riverbanks Zoo releases beloved sea turtle back into the wild

For the last three years, a green sea turtle named Scute has become a staple at Riverbanks Zoo in the Aquarium Reptile Complex. (Source: WIS)
For the last three years, a green sea turtle named Scute has become a staple at Riverbanks Zoo in the Aquarium Reptile Complex. (Source: WIS)
This baby turtle is unnamed, but it is SO CUTE. (Source: WIS)
This baby turtle is unnamed, but it is SO CUTE. (Source: WIS)

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - For the last three years, a green sea turtle named Scute has become a staple at Riverbanks Zoo in the Aquarium Reptile Complex.

Scute was brought to Riverbanks in 2014 as a hatchling from the South Carolina coast as part of species conservation efforts with the intention that one day he would go back into the wild.

He's the second green sea turtle to be cared for and released by Riverbanks Zoo, but he's part of a larger partnership with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources that has also seen more than 100 loggerhead sea turtles released back into the wild after being cared for at the zoo.

"I'm excited, and it's a little bit bittersweet," said Jennifer Rawlings, Aquarium Curator at Riverbanks Zoo who was helping to prepare Scute for his big trip home when we met her. "To have a turtle go back to his home in the wild is really amazing for us."

It's also significant for a struggling sea turtle population in South Carolina that SCDNR estimates only has one in every 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings survive into adulthood. Scute, at 3-years-old and 50 pounds, has been getting prepped to go back to the sea. He's recently been off his Riverbanks Zoo exhibit and perhaps, unknowingly, preparing for his special day.

"We do cool the water down a little bit just so it's closer to what he's going to experience when we release him," said Rawlings. "We also broadcast his food to him so he gets to forage on his own a little bit more than he normally would under our care, so we know he's going to be successful and be able to feed when he's out there in the ocean."

But getting him to the ocean means a three-hour car ride. Keepers worked to wrap Scute up in a supportive sling so his ride would be a safe one.

“We just want to make sure at all times his flippers are protected, that’s an area where they can pull a muscle,” said Rawlings. “We used a swing to kind of swaddle him to keep his flippers close to his body, and then we make sure we have enough hands on him so he’s not feeling uncomfortable.”

Once safe and secure, next stop for Scute was Hobcaw Barony, a private beach in Georgetown. His journey back to the sea included an off-road ride to the estuary where he would be released.

“I picked this spot because there’s little development there’s not a lot of boats here,” said Jenna Cormany, Wildlife Biologist with SCDNR. “I tried to pick a place, especially since this turtle has been around humans -- I don’t want him being attracted to humans for food, so I tried to pick a very remote location close to where he came from to try and keep him away from boats and keep him safe.”

Cormany has watched the South Carolina green sea turtle population slowly recover after facing threats like poaching and habitat loss.

“When I first started about 10 years ago, it was a few nests here and there. They were very special, so I think the latest number is about 16 in our state versus one or two a year early on,” said Cormany.

Cormany said that’s largely thanks to many volunteers who also showed up to cheer Scute on in his next chapter.

“We have over 1300 volunteers in our state, and they work to protect nests in our state so they have the best chance and the highest output possible to become healthy turtles,” added Cormany. “We’re very hopeful about green sea turtles in South Carolina and their road to recovery.”

Scute is a big part of that recovery. DNR officials, zoo keepers, and volunteers helped move the crate that held him in his transport van where they all got to wish Scute farewell. After a few pictures and kind words, the keepers who cared for Scute over the last three years had the bittersweet honors of walking him to the water.

“He's going to do what he's bred to do,” said Kendra Bottini, senior aquarist at Riverbanks Zoo. “He was born to live in the ocean so he needs to go out and do that.”

And just like that, Scute was well on his way. Volunteers and keepers kept a close eye on the waters, catching Scute briefly come up for air as he made his way out toward the sea

“I want to say that's kind of how I expected it to go,” said Bottini. “He took a big breath and he was ready to go. It was a three-hour ride here so I think he was ready to be in the water again.”

And ready to live the life perhaps he’s imagined, and if not imagined, most certainly the life he was created for. Scute is not wearing a tracker, however, he has been flipper-tagged and pit-tagged so if he comes up on shore anywhere, he can be identified.

In the meantime, some news that will make Riverbanks Zoo goers smile: a green sea turtle hatchling arrived at Riverbanks Monday from Myrtle Beach.

It does not have a name yet, but the hatchling will follow in Scute's footsteps and spend the next three years at Riverbanks.

Copyright 2017 WIS. All rights reserved.