SARASOTA, Fla. — Johnny the sea turtle has traveled more than many people do. But the journey that took him from the Gulf of Mexico to Europe and back isn't over yet.
The 68-pound, rare Kemp's ridley turtle was released into the Gulf on Tuesday morning near Sarasota. About 300 people stood on the beach to bid Johnny farewell as he swam off into the surf off Lido Key.
The endangered creature was found stranded on a beach in The Netherlands in 2008, thousands of miles from its usual sea habitat. Marine experts think the turtle — which normally swims, feeds and breeds in and around the Gulf of Mexico — got swept up in the powerful Gulf Stream and carried off to Europe.
"It just had the misfortune to get in the current and go with the flow," said Tony Tucker, the manager of Mote Marine Laboratory's Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program in Sarasota.
But experts didn't give up on the turtle, which was found cold and disoriented in 2008.
Rescuers in The Netherlands named the creature Johnny — though it's sex is unclear — and made sure the turtle received good care at the Rotterdam Zoo. Then Johnny was sent to an aquarium in Portugal, Oceanario de Lisboa, and afterward for rehabilitation at Zoomarine, another site in Portugal.
The turtle traveled so much that the Portuguese experts named it "Johnny Vasco da Gama," after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who opened a sea route from Europe to India centuries ago.
About three years later, Johnny was flown to Miami and then trucked to Sarasota by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. There, Johnny was outfitted with a satellite tracking system that will allow scientists to monitor its travels to come.
Kemp's ridley sea turtles are among the smallest sea turtles, only reaching 100 pounds. They nest on the beaches in Mexico and spend most of their lives along the Gulf coasts of Mexico and the United States, although they can also be found on the Atlantic coast of the U.S.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, it is the most endangered sea turtle.
On Tuesday, Mote staffers pulled up to the beach in a truck and lifted the turtle, with its greyish blue head, out of the pickup bed. The turtle was gently, and briefly, placed on a platform so onlookers and the media could take photos. Then, two workers carried the turtle across the sand and to the water's edge.
They rested the turtle on the sand and it waved its flippers. Mote experts carried it into the surf and it swam away quickly to the applause of onlookers.
"Every time you return an animal to where it belongs, that's a good thing," said Tucker, who was helped carry the turtle to the water.
The sea turtle conservation program at Mote has treated more than 294 sick and injured turtles since 1995.
He said that turtles use the Earth's magnetic field to navigate, so Johnny will probably know exactly what to do and where to go once he orients himself.
Tucker said that Johnny could face some obstacles, including a patch of red tide algae along Florida's southwest coast about two hours from where it was released. Marine biologists also are concerned that Johnny could swim off the coast of Louisiana near the site of a massive offshore oil spill in 2010.
Regardless of where Johnny swims, experts will track the location because of the antenna attached to its shell that will send a signal to a satellite each time the turtle surfaces for air. Tucker said the public can also track Johnny on a map or get daily emails of his whereabouts. Tucker said tracking Johnny will provide experts a rare look at how rehabilitated turtles reorient to the wild.
"Turtles are swimming at about half a mile an hour, so I don't expect it to get very far today," said Tucker. "The whole process of reorienting to the Gulf of Mexico will be part of the feeling it out as it goes, so I don't expect that we're going to see it hightail it for Mexico immediately. I imagine that we'll probably find that it meanders around a little bit."
On the Web:
To monitor Johnny's progress, go to: http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?tag_id=113650