After spending his first three years at the UGA Aquarium, Lefty the loggerhead sea turtle was released earlier this month into the Wassaw Sound from the shore of the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge, near Savannah.
Lefty hatched on Ossabaw Island in September 2015. The turtle was discovered as a straggler in the nest and given by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to serve as an ambassador sea turtle until he was big and strong enough to return to the wild.
“When we first got him we immediately noticed that it was having trouble using its left front flipper,” says Devin Dumont, curator at the UGA Aquarium on Skidaway Island. That, and the fact that the hatchling was left behind in the nest, inspired his name.
For three years, the charismatic sea turtle helped educate thousands of visitors to the UGA Aquarium about the importance of the Georgia coast to nesting sea turtles.
“Looking at a photo of a sea turtle or listening to someone talk about them doesn’t have the same impact as watching a live animal swim in the tank,” said Lisa Olenderski, assistant curator at the aquarium. “People are always amazed by how graceful they are in the water or how agile they are when going after blue crabs. Seeing them in person helps establish that connection and leaves a lasting impression.”
Lefty also helped advance scientific research by serving as a study subject in a project by researchers at Savannah State University that focused on improving environmental enrichment for loggerheads in captivity.
“We gained a little bit of insight into sea turtle color preference and food preference through the study,” Dumont said. “We learned information that can help us enhance their stay while they’re here.”
Undergraduate students at Savannah State participated in the study, conducting behavior analysis trails designed to determine whether sea turtles showed color preference among blue, green orange and yellow objects.
While preparing him for release, the aquarium staff fed him live food, such as blue crabs and mussels, so he could practice active foraging and hunting. With DNR’s approval, the director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island attached number coded tags and a passive integrated transmitter to Lefty before the release. Both can be used to identify Lefty in the future.
On Wassaw, Dumont and Olenderski carried Lefty to the surf and gave him some gentle nudges before he swam into the water and disappeared.
Back at the aquarium, Neptune, a new straggler hatchling discovered by DNR in August, will be available to view during behind-the-scenes tours of the UGA Aquarium during Skidaway Marine Science Day, Oct. 13, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Four species of sea turtles nest along the Georgia coast. While loggerheads are the most common, they are listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Georgia DNR. After almost 40 years of conservation efforts at the federal and state level, DNR reports nesting numbers on the Georgia coast have been increasing dramatically over the last several years.