The scene could’ve come straight out of a feel-good tearjerker in the vein of “Born Free”: Hundreds of people gathered together under a setting sun on a beach in Boca Raton on Thursday, November 15, to watch as one of the state’s most beloved animals returned to the wilderness in triumph.
Really quickly, here’s the back-story: In late July, the Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Facility (STRF) at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton took in a Loggerhead Sea Turtle that had been rescued by fishermen. Cindy – as she came to be known – had been attacked by a shark. The tussle had cost her her entire front left flipper and badly damaged her front right flipper. She was given months of intense medical treatment, including sutures to her flipper and daily doses of antibiotics and unpasteurized honey, which was used to fight infection. When she’d first arrived at the STRF, she was 115 pounds, but by the time of her release, she tipped the scales at more than 130 pounds.
Gumbo Limbo, a popular nature/educational/research facility located on the west side of A1A, generously invited the public to attend Cindy’s release into the Atlantic Ocean. There was no charge associated and the regular parking fee was waived in honor of the occasion. I arrived early at Red Reef Park (located across the street from Gumbo Limbo) and secured a front-row spot to take in the spectacle. Soon enough, the crowd around me swelled to more than 500 people. It included young couples, college students, professionals, and retirees. Perhaps best of all, there were dozens of kids who passed the time by playing in the sand and peppering Gumbo Limbo volunteers with questions about Cindy.
As I eyed a storm front that could be seen making its way down the coast from the north, we got word that Cindy had arrived on the beach. Within minutes, a green and yellow John Deere Gator rolled slowly down to the designated release area, with Cindy safely nestled in the back inside a children’s plastic wading pool. Staff and volunteers hoisted the turtle and pool out of the back and set her gently down on the sand as dozens of smartphones recorded the moment. While I wouldn’t want to imply that I could decipher a turtle’s emotions (particularly from my vantage point), it seemed clear that instinct was taking over as the smell of the salty air hit Cindy’s nose. She seemed antsy; she was ready to go home and it was an honor to watch her get there.
Gumbo Limbo is probably best known locally for its tremendous work with sea turtles - the nature center is on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. In addition to providing space for turtle research and rehab, they host yearly “turtle walk” and “hatchling” programs designed to educate the public about nesting sea turtles. But the nature center also features a hammock trail boardwalk and a butterfly garden trail; both provide ample opportunity for bird watching (Little Blue Herons and other waders are especially common, and a Whip-poor-will is said to make its home on the grounds) and other nature spotting. With Manatee migration underway, visitors may get a chance to see one of the gentle giants from the center’s Intracoastal Waterway beach. At a suggested donation of $5 per person, it’s an affordable and kid-friendly outing to consider for the holiday break.