One of the best parts of my job is being able to participate in incredible conservation projects. These initiatives usually involve rare species and take Aquarium staff and researchers to the special places that many of these animals call home.

This week I am in Valencia, Spain, as we build our relationship with our new partners at Oceanografic. Recognized as Europe’s largest Aquarium, Oceanografic plays an important role working with non-governmental organizations and government officials rescuing and rehabilitating loggerhead sea turtles. This week I was fortunate to arrive as they were releasing 27 young turtles which had been “head started” at the aquarium.

Simply stated, “head starting” efforts involve protecting animals early in their life cycle when they are at their highest risk. For turtles it can include protecting nests or in this case, incubating the eggs and feeding the young until they reach a size where they can head out to sea and not be at risk of being eaten by a hungry gull on the shoreline.

The release was the culmination of over a year’s work and you could feel the excitement as the team loaded up the tents, education materials and finally, the turtles before heading out to release them at a beach near Alicante. The Alicante region is famous for its sandy beaches, which make them a popular tourism destination for people across Europe. It also places significant pressure on species who use the beach for feeding, resting and, in the case of loggerhead turtle, nesting.

As we headed out, I imagined the event would be much like one of the harbour seal releases we conduct at the Vancouver Aquarium… I was very wrong! This release was a first for Oceanografic and the beach was packed with people who had heard about the event in the local media or seen the signage on their way to the water. National news agencies attended and the head veterinarian from Oceanographic Dr. Daniel García Párraga was in high demand as people wanted to learn more about these amazing animals.

I was able to contribute a little to the efforts and helped beachgoers get up close and personal to the young turtles prior to releasing them into the Mediterranean. It was amazing to see people’s reactions as they learned about the turtles, that they were born on the beach and were now heading back out to sea.

To help manage the crowds, local police set up lines, directed traffic and had a patrol board in the area. It was a mass of humanity, loggerhead turtle paparazzi were everywhere!

For me, it was amazing to watch the release of these young loggerhead turtles into their natural environment. While they will face many challenges, from marine debris to fishing threats, they now have the chance to grow and continue the cycle.

Considering the thousands of people who stopped to watch the release and learn about the turtles, I am filled with hope that they will reflect on how their actions can impact individual species. Being up close and personal with these animals’ plants the seeds of curiosity and perhaps some of the participants will become the conservation leaders of tomorrow. Based on some of the body art we saw, there are already some turtle champions in the crowd.

Blog post by Dolf DeJong, vice-president of conservation and education at Vancouver Aquarium.

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