When sea turtles are sick or injured, they can spend a few weeks or months recovering in sea turtle rehabilitation or research centers. The turtles are released back into the wild as soon as they have recovered enough so that they can live normally in the ocean.
But sometimes, sea turtles spend years or even decades away from the ocean. Still, even after sea turtles have spent long periods of time in captivity, they are able to return to the ocean and live like a wild turtle – even following complex migration routes.
Wild sea turtles migrate long distances to reproduce, as females return to the same beach where they hatched in order to lay their own eggs. Sometimes, these turtles cross entire oceans to get back to the beach where they were born. These long journeys inspired the Great Turtle Race, where leatherback sea turtles were tracked as they crossed the Pacific Ocean to nest.
Although not all sea turtles can be released from rehabilitation, healthy turtles that have spent a long time in captivity can still easily adapt back to ocean living. In 1996, researchers released a female loggerhead named Adelita, who had been raised in captivity for 10 years.
Researchers attached a satellite tracking device and were able to follow her incredible journey from Baja California to nesting sites in Sendai Bay, Japan – over 7,000 miles away! Even though she had spent her entire life in a research facility, she was still able to find her way to the area where she hatched.
Even more amazing is the story of Dieter, who was released after spending 29 years in the Stuttgart Aquarium in Germany. He behaved exactly as normal sea turtles do, migrating south in the Mediterranean when the temperatures dropped.
Sea turtles are able to find their way using a number of cues, even following the magnetic patterns of the earth. And sea turtles that have been rehabilitated or held in captivity still possess the ability to navigate, which means they can be released into the wild to trek across the ocean with other turtles.