As the ATV rolled down the sand, cameras and smartphones clicked right and left, as if the teeming crowd was welcoming a movie star at a red-carpet premiere.
If Kahuna noticed the hundreds of people who had shown up Saturday just to see her return to the ocean, she didn’t let on. The large loggerhead sea turtle swatted at a couple of the workers and volunteers who lifted her out of the vehicle and lowered her onto the sand.
It had been two years since Kahuna had been rescued from the wild. But on Saturday, after Loggerhead Marinelife Center doctors and volunteers nursed her back to health with the help of revolutionary medical treatment, Kahuna dove into the ocean and swam to freedom so casually it was hard to tell she’d ever left.
“At first when I saw her, I thought she was a doll, but then she started moving her head,” said 7-year-old Victoria Cavalli, who along with her 6-year-old sister Sofia and parents Cheryl and Virginio had planned their two-week Florida vacation around Kahuna’s release. “When she went in the water, I was thinking, ‘She’s so massive.’ ”
At 195 pounds, Kahuna indeed was an imposing presence on the shoreline, drawing cheers even as she swam away, popping up just once about 150 feet away from shore as if to wave goodbye.
The Cavallis, from East Windsor, N.J., where among the first to arrive for Kahuna’s release. Cheryl Cavalli said she woke her daughters up at 7 a.m., making sure they wouldn’t miss the chance to see the turtle they visited more than a year ago in captivity take her first swim back in the wild.
About two years ago, biologists at FPL’s St. Lucie Power plant discovered Kahuna and brought her to the Gordon and Patricia Gray Veterinary Hospital at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center. Half of one of her flippers had been sliced off, and the other flipper was badly injured. On top of that, she had severe bone infection doctors tried for months to cure with antibiotics, only to have it come back once they stopped the medicine.
Then, in a move that is the first of its kind in veterinary medicine, Dr. Nancy Mettee and the rest of the medical team assigned to Kahuna took the turtle to the Equine Hyperbaric Center of South Florida for hyperbaric oxygen therapy. After 18 sessions, Kahuna was infection free. Doctors moved her to a larger deep water tank at the center, where volunteers prepared her for a return back into the wild.
Dr. Charles Manire, the Marinelife Center’s director of research and rehabilitation, said he wasnt surprised by Saturday’s crowd, as Kahuna had become a favorite among their center’s guests and had a regular crowd of visitors.
“But it is amazing to see how well people have responded to her,” Manire said.
Manire said because Kahuna is a relatively young adult, she still potentially has decades of life ahead of her. If she nests every other year, as is customary with turtles like her, she has the potential to mother thousands of offspring. Doctors equipped her with a special GPS tracker that will chart her movements in the wild over the next year. Manire says her location will be posted once a week online, but she has more than 90 percent chance of surviving through the first year.
Friends Mary Cross and Linda Driscoll, both from Stuart, said they came to watch Kahuna return to the wild because they had learned plenty from her. Over a year of visits, they said, watching her heal and grow gave them an example of resiliency and determination.
Driscoll had tears in her eyes after Kahuna disappeared from view. She was happy the turtle got a chance at freedom, she said.
“It’s a good feeling to see something get another chance,” Driscoll said, pausing for just a moment before she added: “That’s what we humans need to do for each other, help one another when we’re hurt and give one another the best shot at life.”