Endangered Turtle Survives Trans-Atlantic Journey

On Florida’s Gulf coast Tuesday, there will be a celebrated homecoming. For a turtle. This is no ordinary turtle: Known as Johnny Vasco da Gama, after the 15th-century Portuguese explorer, it crossed the Atlantic twice — by sea and by air.

Johnny, as his human friends call him, is a critically endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle. Only a few thousand of these sea-turtles exist, mostly in the Gulf of Mexico. Normally, they do not migrate across the Atlantic.

But in 2008, a juvenile Kemp’s Ridley washed ashore in Europe — cold, exhausted and 4,600 miles from home. Turtle scientist Tony Tucker reckons the turtle hitched a ride.

“Most little turtles — they’re living in the sargassum rafts,” Tucker says. “The sargassum brown seaweed that floats at the surface provides them shelter from predators like seagulls and albatrosses, but it’s also a rich source of food.”

Tucker, who works with the sea turtle conservation program at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, thinks Johnny and his seaweed raft got caught in a big circular current called the North Atlantic Gyre. The journey would have taken over a year.

Johnny’s rescuers nursed him to health in the Netherlands and then Portugal. But they knew he was a rare species and needed to get home. So they flew him to Florida on a Portuguese airliner.

“They bolted out one of the passenger rows of seats and made a place inside a special container for Johnny, and he got to ride all the way across the Atlantic,” Tucker says. “This jet-setting turtle has already crossed the Atlantic twice now, but once in style.”

Biologists at Mote were ready for him.

“We had prepared a warm tank for him, and he’s been swimming ever since. I think there was probably a bit of travel stress — we could call it jet lag if you will — but Johnny has come out of that very nicely,” Tucker says.

Museum records in Europe and the United Kingdom show that four Kemp’s ridley turtles have made this trip in the last century, but those were just one-way.

On Tuesday, scientists will set Johnny free in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This time, he’ll be wearing a satellite tag on his back.

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