As scientists loaded up a dive boat on the Morehead City waterfront recently for a trip offshore to study artificial reefs, six plastic storage bins came aboard for an unrelated mission.
A scientist popped the lid off one to reveal a sea turtle not quite as large as a dinner plate, looking up with gentle, other-worldly eyes.
Each cooler contained a young loggerhead a bit more than a year old. Three had come from the state aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores and the others were from the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach.
The trio from Virginia had small transmitters glued to their shells so scientists could track their movements.
The transmitters were expected to drop off in a few months as the turtles naturally shed outer layers of their shells.
A scientist at of the University of Central Florida uses the data to track their location, and get a sense of the distances they swim for a given period of time, said a spokesman for the Virginia aquarium.
The data gathered helps her get a better understanding of where loggerheads spend their early years.
All six had been stragglers left behind when their nests boiled, and not quite strong enough to make it on their own.
The aquariums raised them until they were old enough and strong enough to have a good chance of survival. But they needed to be released far offshore where the water was warm enough. So, they were hitching a ride. The warm Gulfstream kicks out eastward from North Carolina, so it was easier to reach warm water here than off Virginia.
When the boat was about 30 miles offshore, gauges on the boat said the temperature was right, and the skipper idled the diesel motors.
The scientists tried to be polite, but it was clear that everyone wanted to release a turtle. There were coos and squeals from the humans as each turtle was lifted and carried to a dive platform on the stern to be lowered back into their real home.
Some dove deeper almost immediately. Some took their time, seeming a little shocked at such wide open space. One got laughs by skittering along the surface for several yards before diving.
Loggerheads are classified as a threatened species, and the odds against them are staggering.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), estimates of survival to adulthood for sea turtles range from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000.
Nests “boil” or hatch in a group to give the tiny hatchlings at least some chance as they try to crawl past any waiting predators. Safety in numbers, if predators can only grab a few.
There are other dangers, too. Artificial light from human development along the shore can disorient them so they crawl the wrong way. Beach erosion from climate change has reduced nesting spots. And once in the water, they face not only natural predators but fishermen’s nets.
But these six got a big boost. Three weeks later, the trackers showed that the three with transponders had made it hundreds of miles north and east.