As part of an international conservation effort, SeaWorld Orlando is helping ten endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles – eight adult males and two adult females – who were raised at the Cayman Turtle Centre as part of an experimental captive breeding program that ended many years ago.
At the time, the wild Kemp’s Ridley population was at risk of functional extinction due to hunting and being unintentionally caught in shrimp trawl fisheries, so the turtles were part of a trial effort to determine whether the species would successfully breed in captivity. Fortunately, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle population began growing as international conservation efforts were implemented, and the project was concluded. These ten turtles are the last remaining from that trial.
“In the 1980s the Cayman Turtle Conservation & Education Centre (then known as the Cayman Turtle Farm) received Kemp’s Ridleys as part of an effort to preserve the DNA and future of this endangered sea turtle,” said Cayman Turtle Centre Chief Research & Conservation Officer Dr. Walter Mustin, Ph.D. “The remainder of the collection, recently sent to SeaWorld, will be placed in facilities that can continue to showcase this magnificent species and highlight conservation challenges involved in their continued survival.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries evaluated the release of the turtles based on their history in human care, potential disease risks to the wild population, review of cases involving similar situations, and consultation with sea turtle experts. After careful consideration, NOAA determined that a combination of factors would jeopardize these turtles’ ability to survive in the wild.
Therefore, in April 2022, the non-profit organization Turtles Fly Too enlisted volunteer “Turtle Fliers” who volunteered their own aircraft, fuel, and time to transport the ten turtles from the Cayman Islands to Orlando, where they received a complete veterinary exam, bloodwork, radiographs, and examination for parasites, plus were cared for by SeaWorld Orlando’s turtle care specialists.
“Extinction is forever,” said Turtles Fly Too President Leslie Weinstein. “Turtles Fly Too has been devoted to conservation and restoration efforts for many years and is wholeheartedly committed to working alongside other organizations and agencies to ensure the challenges facing protected marine species and those who care for them are met with clear solutions and real actions.”
Following a 90-day quarantine at SeaWorld, the turtles will be sent to zoos and aquariums around the U.S., where they’ll serve as Animal Ambassadors to educate the public about conservation, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, and the threats they face in the wild.
“SeaWorld has more than four decades of experience caring for a wide variety of sea turtles, all of which are threatened or endangered, which is part of our mission to protect marine animals and their habitats globally,” said Jon Peterson, VP of Zoological Operations at SeaWorld Orlando and head of the SeaWorld Orlando Rescue Team. “We’ve rescued and rehabilitated more than 2,500 turtles with the goal of returning healthy animals back to the wild [and] The SeaWorld Conservation Fund has also provided more than $100,000 in grants and scientific support to ten different turtle conservation projects across Africa and the Americas.”