Sea turtle named for deceased Army Ranger released at Virginia Beach Oceanfront
By KATHERINE HAFNER | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 19, 2017
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The sea turtle was the first catch James Spray had made all day.
At the Buckroe Fishing Pier in Hampton on Monday, Spray had just about given up, when his hook snagged a juvenile Kemp’s ridley turtle – the world’s most endangered sea turtle.
In the hands of the other anglers it flopped around and struggled, but in Spray’s hands the turtle was still and calm.
It “just seemed so peaceful,” he said.
So attached did Spray become to the turtle in the days that followed, that on Friday he gathered with the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Team at the Oceanfront’s North End to release it back into the Atlantic.
For him, the turtle he dubbed Ranger Tan was more than just a peculiar catch.
Something about it connected him to his Army friend, Jason Benchimol, who died of a heroin overdose a few months ago. The name – Ranger Tan – refers to Benchimol’s status as an Army Ranger and the distinctive tan beret Rangers wear (the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center has been naming each rescued sea turtle after a Crayola crayon color). The men met in the military in 2008 and became close friends over the years.
His death “was a terrible blow,” said Spray, who added that his friend suffered from “severe” post-traumatic stress disorder after combat overseas. “He was much better than the disease.”
The two recently had undergone treatment together at the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where Spray is living, though he owns a home in Moyock, N.C.
Inexplicably, catching Ranger Tan became a way to for him reconnect with Benchimol – there was something about the way the animal was at peace.
“That’s Jason in that box,” Spray said Friday, pointing to the aquarium’s container holding the turtle before the release. “He just came back in a different way.”
Spray said the Buckroe pier has signs directing fishermen who catch turtles or marine mammals to call the aquarium. He did so, and talked to Kathy O’Hara, who leads the stranding team there.
Spray “did everything right,” O’Hara said Friday. Ranger Tan was healthy and did not require much rehabilitation.
As the water warms, the cold-blooded turtles are more likely to be caught by fishermen, said aquarium spokesman Matt Klepeisz. At the moment, there are about 15 in recovery with the stranding team. Rehabilitating each turtle can cost between $500 and $5,000, O’Hara said. Staff try to get them back out to the wild as quickly as possible – thus the mere four-day interval for Ranger Tan.
Spray plans to track the turtle, which now has a monitoring device strapped on it, and send data about the animal to Benchimol’s parents in Florida.
He was emotional Friday, glad to see the turtle he associates with his friend able again to roam the sea.
“He’s going to live. He’s going to be free,” Spray said.
Friday morning, Ranger Tan appeared hesitant, staying put on the sand while seawater ebbed and flowed before him.
“They don’t usually do that,” O’Hara said to Spray, with a laugh. “He was looking for you.”
Then the waves came closer, and Ranger Tan trudged out into the sparkling blue water, soon disappearing from view.
Spray looked out over the Atlantic, and gave his friend one last salute.
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