Volunteers Protect Sea Turtles Because Authorities Don't

"Ninth Street and A1A Boulevard." Richard Whitecloud relays his oceanfront location to the emergency dispatcher. "The fatalities just keep racking up in this intersection," he mutters. "Dammit, man. Intersection of death!" Whitecloud, six feet one with long, curly hair kept back in a ponytail, bends down to inspect a corpse:...
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"Ninth Street and A1A Boulevard." Richard Whitecloud relays his oceanfront location to the emergency dispatcher. "The fatalities just keep racking up in this intersection," he mutters. "Dammit, man. Intersection of death!"

Whitecloud, six feet one with long, curly hair kept back in a ponytail, bends down to inspect a corpse: a baby loggerhead sea turtle he peels off the asphalt like a cookie off a baking sheet. Its shell is flattened. Wet guts bubble out of one side.

He records this crime against nature on infrared video, which captures the 2 a.m. scene in black and white – appropriate for a scene devolving into a horror movie. One by one, he collects tiny bodies and lays them on the curb: "1, 2, 3, 4..." In eight minutes, he'll be up to 27. He pans the camera to document the manmade inventions he deems responsible for the turtles' deaths: a bar's backlit sign and rope lights, amalgamated with city streetlights and the intense glow from an ice cream shop a block off the beach.

Finally, Fort Lauderdale firefighters arrive in a full-size truck and open a storm drain. Four turtles are freed. Whitecloud spots one more hatchling in the road – still alive! – and hustles to pick it up, its flippers pumping as though it might fly away. "You're not gonna die tonight, buddy. I got ya."

Whitecloud shot this video in 2011, but he says little has changed for turtles in the interim. Lights still blaze along Broward County beaches, and hatchlings who confuse them for the natural light of the stars and moon get disoriented and march toward traffic instead of the ocean. Whitecloud blames authorities, who fail to enforce local laws that require turtle-safe lights. "We pay taxes," he says. "We expect [imperiled species] to be protected."

Sea Turtle Oversight Protection has saved 140,000 turtles since 2007.

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The Endangered Species Act of 1973 makes it a federal crime to harm or harass a sea turtle. In 1993, the State of Florida outlined that beaches during nesting season (March 1 to October 31) should not be "directly or indirectly" or "cumulatively" illuminated. In turn, Broward County in 2000 required each of its beachfront cities to develop turtle-related lighting ordinances, which they did. Yet as anyone who's ever gone for an evening shoreline stroll can attest, plenty of lights shine on. Code enforcement officers generally treat offenders gently, and property owners are rarely fined.

Since witnessing turtles die in 2007, 42-year-old Whitecloud and his wife Siouxzen ("Zen," for short), a spiritual woman with clear blue eyes and hair that swings past her waist, have taken it upon themselves to recruit and train an army of volunteers. These dedicated folks stay awake all night and monitor Broward's beaches, helping turtles – both nesting mamas and newborn babies – find their way.

Volunteers with the Whiteclouds' nonprofit group, Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, have saved 140,000 turtles since 2007. Zen alone turned around 713 disoriented turtles on a single night. Still, STOP only has resources to patrol about 40 percent of Broward's beaches. Untold numbers of turtles are born and die without notice.

If cities would simply enforce their lighting laws, STOP's gargantuan effort would be infinitely easier to accomplish, the Whiteclouds contend. Thousands more turtles would have a shot at life.

"Just pick the biggest violator," Richard begs authorities. "Slap on a big fine, bring their ass in court."

"Development has exploded along the beach, but don't tell the turtles that," says Jim Ressegieu, who has led an educational turtle walk program at Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Science and Discovery for 25 years. "They still come up here and do their thing."

In the 150 million or so years they've existed, sea turtles have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, even across oceans, between feeding and nesting grounds. When it's time to mate (for males, every year; for females, every few years), they return to the beaches where they were born. Of the seven species of sea turtles in the world, three (greens, which are listed as "threatened"; loggerheads, which are "endangered"; and "critically endangered" leatherbacks) lay their eggs in Broward County. In 2015, 3,251 nests were established on Broward's 22 miles of shoreline. (Palm Beach, which has 47 miles of coastline with more vegetation and less development, saw 34,215; Miami-Dade, which was largely developed before scientists realized the effect of lighting on turtles, had just 578.)

Though Ressegieu doesn't get into the nitty-gritty of turtle sex during his nightly presentation at the museum, scientific literature explains that, like birds, the animals have a cloaca – a single orifice that does double duty to excrete waste and handle reproductive functions. As described in an article entitled "The Terrifying Sex Organs of Male Turtles" in the Scientific American blog Tetrapod Zoology, males are "horrifically well endowed," with penises half the length of their shells. (A leatherback carapace is usually six to eight feet long.)

Near their nesting grounds offshore, successful males use sharp claws to latch onto mates for up to 24 hours, sometimes tearing flesh. As the couple swims entwined, other males might try to knock off the mating male by biting his tail and flippers. After finishing, both turtles move on to other partners. A female keeps mating until she has enough sperm to fertilize all of her eggs.

And that's only half the work.

Months after copulation, a female still has to build a nest and lay the eggs; some might do so seven or eight times in a season. In a single night, females lay an average of 110 eggs per clutch. In about 45 to 80 days (depending on the species): babies! The temperature of the nest determines the sex of those little ones. If it's warm, females emerge; if it's cold, males. "Hot chicks and cool dudes," says Ressegieu. Only one in a thousand lives to adulthood.

In early June, after he gives an hourlong lecture at the museum, Ressegieu leads turtle walkers who pay $20 apiece to the sand behind the Harbor Beach Marriott hotel on A1A. Armed with infrared flashlights and walkie-talkies, Ressegieu walks north up the beach while a coworker heads south and the rest of the group waits by the hotel. Over two hours, the experts generally note about a dozen "false crawls" – turtles walking on the sand, but turning back into the water without laying any eggs.

At 12:40, just 20 minutes before quitting time, a crackle sounds over the walkie-talkie. A mama!

The tourists hustle up near the B Ocean hotel (formerly the Yankee Clipper) on the main stretch of Fort Lauderdale Beach, where a loggerhead has dug her nest and begun to enter what Ressegieu calls "the trance." He crawls behind her, his head low as if he were a soldier dodging sniper fire, and he sticks his infrared flashlight under the turtle's butt, motioning for the group to come closer until they are about a dozen feet back.

Eggs the size of Ping-Pong balls silently drop out of the mama turtle. Plop. Plop-plop. Pl-pl-plo-plo-plop. Thirty minutes after starting, in what looks like an exhausting exercise, she awkwardly flips sand over the babies she'll never meet and waddles back into the surf.

Richard and Siouxzen Whitecloud had already planned out the adobe house they intended to build thousands of miles west of their Fort Lauderdale abode. They'd even scouted out land for an organic farm. In two days, they would set out for New Mexico.

On July 10, 2007, Zen slipped off to Deerfield Beach to teach one final sunrise yoga class. She liked going before dawn to sculpt a medicine wheel in the sand and pray around it.

As she approached the beach near the city pier, Zen noticed something wiggling. "As far as the eye could see – hatchlings," she remembers.

Some went under a truck. Some were crawling between condos. Some had crossed A1A. She ran back and forth across the beach, dropping baby turtles in the water.

Over the next few days, Richard and Zen began calling authorities to make sure those in charge of watching the turtles all night were aware of the problem. They wanted to be sure someone would take care of getting lights turned off.

"We were blowing smoke up our own ass," says Richard, "thinking, 'There's got to be somebody out here who cares.'"

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They quickly learned that although federal and state agencies set policies about turtles, the only regular, on-the-ground monitoring was a county program that partners with Nova Southeastern University students to rope off nests at sunrise. Dead turtles sometimes ended up in the trash when maintenance crews cleaned the beach. This came as a shock to the Whiteclouds, who assumed that "if you pay taxes, the law is enforced," Richard says.

"We were naive," adds Zen. "We thought, 'Obviously, this must be some type of oversight.'"

"We were blowing smoke up our own ass," says Richard, "thinking, 'There's got to be somebody out here who cares and can get shit done.'" Authorities, he says, condescended to them as though they were "Podunk, Indian hippies."

Richard resolved to find out who was responsible.

"And nature talks to me," Zen grins.

The couple figured they'd hold off on their move to New Mexico for a few days until they could get to the bottom of the matter. Says Richard: "We thought, 'If we chew enough ass politically, the people responsible for this happening will do their job and start managing the lighting.' That was an illusion.

"I was on the phone with a guy from the Department of the Interior in Washington," Richard remembers. "He said, 'If you want turtles protected, you're going to have to find a way to do it yourself.'"

The Whiteclouds each claim Native American heritage, and this is key to their world view. Richard, who is Cherokee, Blackfoot, and Welsh, had grown up in Central Florida, then moved to Philadelphia to be a painter and work in TV and film production. There, he met Siouxzen, who sold art and ran a free community center.

She is of Lakota Nation blood and was raised in the Oneida Territory, Turtle Clan, in upstate New York. "If anything is destiny..." she chuckles.

The two were friends for a long time. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, Zen began a healing walk along the East Coast down to Florida. Cell phones had not yet become ubiquitous, and she set off without one.

Richard felt compelled to check up on her. "There was a joy missing from my life. I had never experienced [that] from anyone but her," he says. He showed up in Deerfield, where he knew she had friends. When she finally walked into town, she remembers, "He was there sculpting a turtle in the sand." Soon they married, had a daughter, and made plans to head to New Mexico.

But when Zen found the dead turtles, Richard started organizing friends to cover the beach at night for three-hour shifts to get the critters through that 2007 season. "We made a conscious choice to use the ethics of [our] own traditions to mitigate the problem, because nobody else was," he explains.

The Sun Sentinel ran a story and included Richard's contact information alongside a call for volunteers. Soon, answering the phone became a job in and of itself. Sometimes, 50 people would promise to come to the beach, but no one would show up. The couple dragged their four-year-old on shifts lasting through the night. They had to cut household costs to be able to do this work, so they moved into an Airstream trailer.

Nine years later, Sea Turtle Oversight Protection is a registered 501(c)3, though it is still scrappy. IRS filings show it brought in $95,000 in donations in 2014, and the only salary paid was $12,500 to Richard.

Despite the fact that he wasn't formally trained as a biologist, Richard realized government efforts were lacking. He obtained a state permit that allows trained STOP volunteers to redirect disoriented turtles toward the sea. A core of about 70 people has completed eight hours of instruction, fulfilled 40 hours of probationary training on the beach, and undertaken a minimum eight-hour-per-week commitment. They log reports and share data with government agencies. The group's smartphone app records the GPS location of nests and can be used to submit a formal complaint about turtle-lighting violators.

Leaders allow visitors to tag along on turtle treks for a $25 donation. Last year, members of the hardcore environmental group the Sea Shepherds joined STOP on night watches. (Palm Beach and Miami-Dade both have entities that patrol nests at sunrise and respond to calls about injured turtles. In Broward, the National Audubon Society also does some overnight hatchling rescue.)

STOP has spoken up for turtles at city meetings and in the press. The group has also posted videos on YouTube to show the reality of the turtles' nighttime plight. Soon, government agencies realized "they better step up their game because there's a new crew in town," Richard says. "We're like turtle Wikileaks."

In 2011, STOP threatened to sue when Fort Lauderdale indicated it would try to move turtle nests from its main tourist strip. The activists petitioned the Coast Guard in 2012 to shield a section of beach from light cast by the Hillsboro Lighthouse. All along the way, the Whiteclouds have called out cities for not enforcing their lighting ordinances.

When publicly pressured, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler pointed out that the city spent $2 million to retrofit 100 light poles on A1A with covers that aim light directly downward. While the city hadn't fined anyone, he said, it had won compliance from property owners through hundreds of warnings and violations.

As Richard Whitecloud sees it, that's the problem. Cities typically use nonpunitive enforcement rather than fines — therefore, the law is not taken seriously. He queries, "Why even have a law? Who picks and chooses which to enforce?"

Whitecloud says that only once has a Broward property owner been fined for a lighting violation. New Times could not confirm this because not every municipality responded to a request for data, but it's clear many beachfront cities have taken a casual approach to enforcement.

In Deerfield Beach, code compliance supervisor Bernard Pita says inspectors survey the beach twice per month. "We're in the process of notifying everyone as a reminder" that it's nesting season, he said in early June, and, "We have zero that have been fined."

In Hillsboro Beach, police Maj. Jay Szeznat says, "Fortunately, we have never cited anyone for a sea turtle lighting violation. We receive compliance by going out and speaking with residents, working with them... Education in the form of community partnerships is the key to our lighting success."

In Dania Beach, the city clerk's office reports: "The city has not issued citations on our turtle light ordinance."

Fort Lauderdale spokesperson Matt Little didn't have enforcement data for his city by presstime, though he said of STOP, "We like those guys." But, he added, "We get more complaints about the lack of light on the beach [than the light]."

In addition to lighting issues, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the City of Fort Lauderdale all permit the Tortuga Music Festival – an event that capitalizes on the Spanish word for "turtle" and ostensibly has a conservationist mission – to bring 90,000 people to Fort Lauderdale Beach, at the cost of $100 per day per ticket, every April, when critically endangered leatherbacks are already nesting and loggerheads begin.

STOP has received donations from the festival and plants sea oats during the event to mitigate damage. Festival organizers declined to comment for this article. July 4 – when tens of thousands of people flock to beaches for municipal fireworks shows at the height of turtle hatching – is another major concern.

Broward County's turtle program conducts lighting surveys once a month and passes on problematic addresses to the various cities' code enforcement officers. But, as the 2014 report conceded, the surveys only count the number and type of light fixture on each property without measuring the intensity of the light. Still, the report identified the brightest properties in each city, including condos along Galt Ocean Mile, Beach Place, and the Elbo Room in Fort Lauderdale as well as the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood. The report said letters would be sent to properties with the "most egregious visible lights," but when New Times checked, a spokesperson said they never been sent "due to availability of resources."

The 2015 report was not ready at presstime, but in June, a county spokesperson gave New Times a list of the "brightest cumulative addresses" in each beachfront city. These include the Cove Beach Club in Deerfield; the $17.2 million-dollar Hillsboro Beach home of construction magnate Donald Thiel (who pays more than $250,000 in property taxes each year); piers in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Dania; and condo buildings in Pompano, Hollywood, and Hallandale.

Ultimately, says Whitecloud, local governments are more concerned with economic stimulation than with the environment – "property taxes and tourist revenue, because that's their main concern. Because it's always about money."

Just after dusk on Thursday, June 16, code enforcement officer John Weitzner, dressed in a uniform of a blue-gray polo shirt and official cap, wheels his bicycle up to an art deco house at the south end of the Broadwalk, Hollywood's beachfront promenade. Though it was the last city in Broward County to put an ordinance on its books, Hollywood is now vowing to get serious about turtle lighting.

A fixture by the home's front door emanates a bright white light. Weitzner knocks. "I'll tell them, 'Hey, you have that one fixture – easy peasy!'" But no one is home, so he leaves his literature and vows to check back.

"If you break it down to the atomic level," the lanky officer says cheerfully, "code enforcement is like sales. I like to inspire people. I treat people like I'd like to be treated. Once they see that you care, they tend to care."

Though the city's turtle-lighting ordinance was passed in 2011, it initially applied to new construction; existing properties were given time to come into compliance. Last year, the ordinance was enforced somewhat. Weitzner agrees that now, it's time to get tougher.

"It needs that political will," he says. "That way, the landlords are conditioned to know: This is not a suggestion; it's an ordinance. The rubber hits the road when you enforce."

The state had developed a model ordinance that beachfront cities were then directed to follow. It called for no "direct or indirect" or "cumulative" light to reach beyond sand dunes. Hollywood's ordinance states, "It is the intent of the City that, during Marine Turtle Nesting Season, no Artificial Light shall illuminate any area of the incorporated Beach of the City during night hours." Exemptions are made for streetlights and safety. Offenders can be fined $500 or sentenced to up to 60 days in jail.

Whitecloud interprets these ordinances to mean that beaches should be completely dark. But Weitzner says there's "a spectrum" of acceptability and rattles off lighting recommended by the state: The simplest compliant lighting incorporates low-wattage, amber bulbs and an opaque shield on the side of the light that faces the beach.

If Weitzner spots an offending light during his weekly nighttime shift, he snaps a photo. He can issue a verbal warning, then a written violation, then a notice – sent by certified mail and also posted on the building – that the violator must attend a hearing before a special magistrate. If the magistrate rules in favor of the city, a lien with a daily fine could be placed on the property.

Weitzner sympathizes with property owners, noting, "Some of these buildings are not small, so to do a retrofit is not an easy process."

Weitzner focuses on success stories. After he gave a talk to the condo board at the Summit Towers (two 24-story buildings), leaders incorporated lighting rules into their bylaws. The corporate entity is legally responsible for any offending lights on the building, Weitzner says, "so they policed themselves." He's happy to see shielded amber lights on a condo that he warned, and at the Foxylove Apartments, where he'd issued a violation, lights in a common area are off.

"This little stupid shit about a light bulb!"

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Along the Broadwalk, though, there's cause for concern. At Sushi Thai on the Beach, a backlit blue sign fronts the ocean, as do a cluster of neon signs in a window. Weitzner walks inside the bustling restaurant and hands a written violation to a cashier, saying kindly, "If you need an extension, I can give you one." Passing a souvenir shop, Weitzner frets, "Oh, this is not good. Way too bright." He snaps a photo and makes a note to write up a warning. Josh's Organic Juice Bar has about 15 superwhite lights shining on its gazebo. Weitzner tells a worker he'll need to swap or cover them and hands over a brochure.

But it's at Bonny & Read's Toucan Hideout – a bar once featured on an episode of Bar Rescue – that Weitzner pulls out the big guns. This property was issued a violation in May and hasn't complied. "Now they're scheduled for the magistrate," says Weitzner. "I want to set an example. We've done education and outreach for years, and now we have to prosecute."

He tapes a fluorescent orange Notice of Hearing to a back door, then goes around to the front, where patrons are happily guzzling drinks with the owner, Jamie Hawkes III, a tanned dude with long white hair and a hoop earring.

Upon seeing Weitzner, Hawkes stops midconversation and shouts, "I got the notice! I'm good! I'll go to court!" Then he bounds down the steps in his flip-flops, where Weitzner greets him with a grin.

"They're little babies and they get disorient–" Weitzner explains eagerly.

"According to my calculations, turtles don't mind – because there's a whole lot of nests on this beach!" says Hawkes incredulously. "And," he says, gesturing to the waist-high wall that separates most of the sidewalk from the sand, "if they go the wrong way, they're going to bang their little heads against the wall."

Ah, smiles Weitzner. No need for any head-banging if the bar would just comply. He pulls out a flyer that shows "acceptable" and "unacceptable" light fixtures.

Hawkes waves it away. "Guess who I am?" he boasts. "I'm the guy who might want to go in front of the special magistrate! I've had this bar 12 years, and I've only [encountered one disoriented turtle]. They go up the road by John U. Lloyd park, where it's dark. Turtles don't come here, in the middle of Mardi Gras!"

"Biologically, that's because there it's more friendly for nests," Weitzner counters. "If we can get this area more complied, there will be more nests."

"This little stupid shit about a light bulb!" Hawkes grumbles. "There's only so much a business can do! Two years ago, these lights were fine. Today they're not."

"You can have light – there's a whole variety of options," Weitzner says agreeably.

Hawkes gestures as though he is holding a shovel and moving it back and forth into an orifice. "Keep shoving it up a little farther," he says. "Because after I fix my light, it's going to be something else."

"When are you going to fix it?" Weitzner grins.

"Before I gotta go to court, how about that?"

They shake on it.

Doug Phinney has seen it all on Fort Lauderdale Beach. People having sex. So many drunks. People constantly snapping selfies with turtles. "They're like, 'Twerk on the turtle!'"

Just two days ago, he found a brick of pure cocaine right in front of Hooters, which he turned over to police. He jokes that if he'd known its value — $250,000 — and how far that could have gone toward funding STOP, "I would have thought long and hard about turning it in."

A high school teacher who has spent seven nights a week for the past five summers rescuing turtles with STOP, Phinney on June 23 shares his tales with a dozen tourists during a turtle trek as the group eyes a loggerhead nest just south of Sunrise Boulevard. A few rainy days had been followed by two nice sunny ones, and chances are especially high that turtles might hatch. Further down the beach, Zen is monitoring another nest with her kids' group – a dozen STOP volunteers ages 8 to 17 pulling an 8-to-midnight shift. Another volunteer is posted by the Swimming Hall of Fame, near the only leatherback nest in the city. There is a possibility that it, too, could produce hatchlings tonight.

Phinney roams for miles on foot every night, knocking down sandcastles that could become obstacles for turtles. He can see sharks' eyes gleaming as they swim close to shore in the darkness. One homeless woman keeps STOP's 24-hour hotline number handy and calls if she sees hatchings. "She'll wake up with baby turtles on her," Phinney chuckles. But in five years, he has only twice encountered a government wildlife officer. He says only one city commissioner, Dean Trantalis, has accepted an open invitation to join a turtle trek.

But there is good news, too. The W hotel is sleek and dark, and it's planning new lighting as it undergoes remodeling. Certain buildings require turtle-friendly lighting plans to obtain coastal construction permits; Richard Whitecloud will help businesses to plan and source appropriate lights for free. "We want to help develop solutions," he says. Several businesses have already converted to low-wattage, amber lights. The B Ocean hotel is modernizing its lighting and offering a turtle vacation package that includes a STOP turtle trek and a plush turtle. (Zen persuaded them to switch out a polyester-stuffed turtle with a biodegradable, fair-trade, hemp one.)

"They're like, 'Twerk on the turtle!'"

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Every now and then while storytelling, Phinney shines an infrared flashlight at the loggerhead nest, but there's no movement. And then, around 11 p.m., word comes over his cell phone: "There's a drop at the leatherback nest!"

After a mile hike southward along Fort Lauderdale Beach – past a giant wedding party taking photos, past teenagers shimmying 30 feet up a coconut tree, past two men punching each other on a sidewalk, past a girl barfing over the side of a pedicab, past the brightly lit strip of bars that STOP volunteers call "Hell's Kitchen" – the group of turtle rescuers, led by Zen, stand well behind the radius of the leatherback's roped-off nest. They use Cuban mops to flatten out the sand in a circle around the nest so that when hatchlings cross, their tracks can be followed and all babies accounted for.

Tourists on the trek can't believe their luck to witness a leatherback hatchout – the rarest of all.

"The universe wanted to give you a gift," says Zen.

In the center of the nest, sand dips down in a cone shape – a tiny, inverted volcano barely noticeable to an untrained eye. Over the next hour, it will slowly darken and widen, looking like a pot of boiling black water as tiny heads pop up like bubbles.

Because the moon is bright and the sky is clear, Phinney predicts all of the turtles will make it to the water without assistance. Just then, a blindingly bright light – someone using their cell phone as a flashlight – bobs along the shoreline. A volunteer runs to intercept him.

Seemingly at once, about two dozen turtles, each the size of a fist, make it out of the hole and crawl in all directions over dimples of sand that must seem to them like mountain valleys. Phinney was wrong; only eight go to the ocean without help. Over about 15 minutes, STOP volunteers scramble to collect the other 17 and put them in buckets. (Leatherback numbers have been low in recent years due to mercury in the jellyfish turtles eat.)

After the babies who need no assistance are safely in the water, the crowd gathers at the shore to release the others. As they set off, turtles are named according to the instructions of donors who pay $15 to name a leatherback, $10 for a green, or $5 for a loggerhead.

A volunteer lifts a squirming turtle out of a bucket. "This one is Dierks Bentley," announces another volunteer, reading off the list of names, which, it turns out, includes all the musicians who played at Tortuga Music Fest this year – a gesture that STOP offered as part of its involvement with the concert.

Nine-year-old Kalia Jones, who has already saved about 2,000 babies throughout her shifts with STOP, leads the group in blessing the turtle: "Swim happy and free, Dierks Bentley!" she says as he wiggles under the waves.

"This one is Sam Hunt."

The tourists join in a quiet chorus: "Swim happy and free, Sam Hunt!"

One by one, the turtles are christened and waddle into the waves. Whether they will return in 30 years when they're ready to breed is anyone's guess.

"Swim happy and free, Michael Franti and Spearhead!"

"Swim happy and free, Kelsea Ballerina!"

"Swim happy and free, a Thousand Horses!"

"Swim happy and free..."

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