Magnolia wasn’t in a hurry to go home. The last time she left the ocean was to die.
But early Saturday morning, she drew a crowd of more than 300 people at Huntington Beach State Park to watch the Loggerhead sea turtle paddle about 25 yards into the waves.
“She’s a diva. I mean, anybody named Magnolia has to be a diva,” Kathy Raley said after watching her paddle a few feet, pause, lift her head, look toward the crowd, paddle a few more feet and give the look over and over again until she reached the waves.
Raley and her husband Bill Raley, North Litchfield Beach S.C.U.T.E. (South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts) coordinators, were alerted early on May 17 that a turtle was covered in barnacles and had beached itself. They found her motionless near Loggerhead Lane and Magnolia Beach. The Raleys delivered her to fellow S.C.U.T.E. volunteers Terry Graham and Debbie Donnelly for a drive to the S.C. Aquarium Sea Turtle Hospital in Charleston.
“She looked so bad,” Donnelly said. “But she looks so beautiful now.”
Magnolia was anemic and at least 50 pounds underweight. With antibiotics, vitamins and a progressive diet, she rallied from hardly moving to swimming in one of the hospital’s 14 tanks in a few weeks. The hospital was facing 42 strandings, a record for the facility, so space had to be made for sicker sea turtles. Magnolia was transferred to Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach in July.
“She weighs 202 pounds today. She was 185 pounds when we received her,” Tim Handsel said. The director of husbandry and assistant general manager at Ripley’s said the turtle had gained 30 to 40 pounds in Charleston but needed more time to recuperate and fatten up before being released. The release, he said, was approved by the state Department of Natural Resources.
Handsel is confident Magnolia is healthy so she won’t be beaching herself again in the next few days. Smiling as he looked at the ocean, he said she’d regained her appetite eating about 10 pounds of seafood a day at the Ripley’s facility and she was alert and “very active.”
Magnolia’s rehabilitation at Ripley’s is the first time it’s been sent a turtle from the Sea Turtle Hospital, Bethany Marshall of Ripley’s said. She added the Myrtle Beach facility is not new to the rehabilitation arena having received eight green sea turtles from North Carolina in January. The eight had beached themselves after being “cold stunned” by water temperatures and most of them had barnacles on their shells that had to be removed. All of the green sea turtles were rehabilitated at Ripley’s and released in Florida a month later.
“The surf was so rough in Florida we had to carry them all out past the waves,” Handsel, still staring at the ocean, said. “Not like today. She was able to go in by herself. She’s strong.”
The crowd that had lined the beach watching Magnolia scoot and pause, followed her tracks to the edge of the surf. Seconds would pass until a chorus of “There she is” would ring out every time Magnolia’s head broke the surface more than 100 yards out in the ocean.
“It brings tears to my eyes. It’s so emotional,” Graham said comparing the long drive to Charleston with the dying turtle in her vehicle to the fattened and sleek turtle she’d just seen go back home. “She was brought back to life.”