ATLANTIC BEACH, N.C. — The Coast Guard Cutter Block Island headed out on patrol Thursday with cargo that is part of its mission of protecting marine resources.
Eight juvenile sea turtles were loaded onto the cutter from its home port at Sector Field Office Fort Macon in Atlantic Beach as the crew made morning preparations to get underway.
While the turtles are ready for their return to the wild, the winter water temperatures have dropped too low, with the turtles in danger of becoming too lethargic if released into inshore waters. The Block Island crew planned to head 45 miles offshore to release the turtles into the warm 70-degree waters of the Gulf Stream.
“It’s fun for us. It’s cool to have the turtles on board. It’s a feel-good thing,” said Lt. j.g. Paul Junghans, operations officer for Block Island.
The turtle releases aren’t the most visible part of their mission, but the cutters stationed at Fort Macon are no stranger to the duty. Twenty sea turtles were released in August by the Cutter Staten Island and Block Island was involved in another release last year.
Junghans said that when the public thinks of the Coast Guard mission, they typically think law enforcement and search and rescue. He said their mission also includes important duties such as recreational boating safety, commercial fishing enforcement and safety, and marine environmental protection.
That includes making sure the latest group of rehabilitated sea turtles is safely released into the wild.
“It’s another facet of the living marine resources mission,” he said.
Of the eight juvenile sea turtles that caught a ride Thursday aboard the Block Island, the majority were loggerheads. There was also a green sea turtle and a Kemp’s ridley.
Matthew Godfrey, state sea turtle biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, coordinated the release of the sea turtles.
The smallest of them to be released was the hatchling that came from a local beach this nesting season.
“It came from a nest on Bogue Banks but when it came out it was not moving very well and couldn’t walk to the water. Volunteers took the hatchling to the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores and it was rehabilitated for several months and able to be released,” Godfrey said.
Two of the turtles were yearlings that hatched from nests on Bogue Banks in 2011 and were also taken to the aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores for rehabilitation. They were loaned to other aquarium for educational programs and returned to be released.
Several others were rehabilitated at various locations and were brought into Atlantic Beach for the release.
The Kemp’s ridley came from the National Aquarium in Baltimore. One of the larger loggerheads came from South Carolina and another was found on a beach in Dare County and cared for by the rehabilitation center in Manteo, Godfrey said.
Of the loggerheads in the group, they ranged in age from the hatchling to the oldest estimated to be about 15 years old. Most of them ranged in age between one year and four years old.
After the sea turtles were loaded aboard Block, Lt. Trey Flusche, commanding officer of the cutter, asked for any parting instructions.
He praised the partnership and coordination between agencies that makes such events happened.
“This is also part of our stewardship and working with our partners in protecting our environmental resources and marine species. It’s a team effort, that’s what this is,” Flusche said.
The Block Island is a 110-foot island class patrol boat with a 17-person crew. The crew is responsible for conducting law enforcement, search and rescue, homeland security and marine environmental protection off the coastal waters from the southern border on North Carolina to the northern end of New Jersey.