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After Rescue, Massive Sea Turtle Released Into Atlantic

  • Yawkey was released back into the Atlantic on Thursday. The leatherback turtle was found stranded last Saturday.
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    Yawkey was released back into the Atlantic on Thursday. The leatherback turtle was found stranded last Saturday.
    South Carolina Aquarium
  • The staff of the Sea Turtle Hospital at the South Carolina Aquarium named a stranded leatherback turtle Yawkey, after the area where it was found stranded Saturday.
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    The staff of the Sea Turtle Hospital at the South Carolina Aquarium named a stranded leatherback turtle Yawkey, after the area where it was found stranded Saturday.
    South Carolina Aquarium
  • The leatherback's large front flippers make it a strong swimmer. The turtles migrate for long distances in the Atlantic Ocean and other waters.
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    The leatherback's large front flippers make it a strong swimmer. The turtles migrate for long distances in the Atlantic Ocean and other waters.
    South Carolina Aquarium
  • It took five people to lift the turtle as part of the rescue effort.
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    It took five people to lift the turtle as part of the rescue effort.
    South Carolina Aquarium
  • The leatherback sea turtle was prepared for its release back into the Atlantic on Thursday.
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    The leatherback sea turtle was prepared for its release back into the Atlantic on Thursday.
    South Carolina Aquarium
  • Yawkey being prepared for release on Thursday afternoon.
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    Yawkey being prepared for release on Thursday afternoon.
    South Carolina Aquarium
  • After initially being estimated at weighing 500 pounds, the turtle was found to weigh 475 pounds. Mature adults can weigh 2,000 pounds.
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    After initially being estimated at weighing 500 pounds, the turtle was found to weigh 475 pounds. Mature adults can weigh 2,000 pounds.
    South Carolina Aquarium

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Updated at 6:56 p.m. ET

A 475-pound leatherback sea turtle that was rescued from a remote beach in South Carolina was returned to the ocean Thursday, after being found stranded ashore and nursed back to health. It took five people to carry the creature, officials say.

The turtle "immediately responded to treatments" of fluids, vitamins and antibiotics after it was rescued Saturday, says spokeswoman Kate Dittloff of the South Carolina Aquarium.

A gender can't be determined for the turtle: Despite its size, it's still too young to have a mature reproductive system. It is believed to be about 10 to 15 years old. Mature leatherbacks can reach sizes of up to around 2,000 pounds.

The release ends a rare visit ashore by a leatherback, the world's largest turtle — and one of the largest reptiles. Leatherbacks commonly migrate along the Atlantic Coast, but they usually make the trip much farther out from the coast.

The turtle's recovery has the aquarium's staff "beyond excited," Dittloff says.

Researchers at the aquarium say they acclimated the turtle to the current coastal temperature of 58 degrees by cooling down the water in its tank.

"Despite being cold-blooded reptiles, leatherback sea turtles can generate some body heat and can endure much cooler temperatures than other sea turtle species," Dittloff says.

The staff of the aquarium's Sea Turtle Hospital named the turtle Yawkey, after the area it was spotted in near Georgetown, S.C. It was transported to the aquarium in Charleston, about an hour away. The organization cared for the turtle with help from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

There have reportedly only been a handful of live rescues of a leatherback sea turtle in the U.S. Here are more facts that help explain why the aquarium's staff was so excited to observe and save one of the creatures:

  • From the American Museum of Natural History: "Leatherbacks have special adaptations that allow them to eliminate waste gases through their skin, so they can stay under water for extraordinarily long periods. Inside their bodies, they actually convert salt water to fresh water, ingesting the sea water around them and excreting the salt."
  • From NOAA: "The leatherback is the only sea turtle that doesn't have a hard bony shell. A leatherback's top shell (carapace) is about 1.5 inches (4 cm) thick and consists of leathery, oil-saturated connective tissue overlaying loosely interlocking dermal bones. Their carapace has seven longitudinal ridges and tapers to a blunt point."
  • From the World Wildlife Fund: "Although their distribution is wide, numbers of leatherback turtles have seriously declined during the last century as a result of intense egg collection and fisheries bycatch. Globally, leatherback status according to IUCN is listed as Vulnerable, but many subpopulations (such as in the Pacific and Southwest Atlantic) are Critically Endangered."
  • And finally, our favorite fact: Leatherback turtles eat jellyfish.

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