The scene at Cape Palms Park last Friday recalled a movie premiere.
Crowds were cordoned off on each side of a central path from the boardwalk to water’s edge.
Hundreds pressed against the restraining tape, cameras ready.
But the stars of this production wore hard shells, 140 green sea turtles and the more endangered Kemp’s Ridley turtles, and instead of red carpet they were carried over sand to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and home.
The turtles were rescued during a cold-stun event the week before, when land temperatures dipped below freezing and the water of St. Joseph Bay dipped.
Turtles, a researcher with Gulf World explained to the crowd, “can not self-regulate their temperature.”
They are cold-blooded and when the surrounding temperatures bring their bodies below 50 degrees they essentially enter a stupor.
They are unable to move and eat and will float to the surface.
During the recent cold snap, 142 turtles had been found listless in the bay and taken to Gulf World where they were rehabilitated in warm water with needed food.
The goal is to get them back in the water as soon as possible. The warmer temperatures in the gulf will cocoon them as they make their way back to the bay.
“We believe they will end up back in the bay,” said a researcher.
That, University of Florida researchers explained during a Board of County Commissioners last year, is because the population of turtles that call the bay home is somewhat of a unique group unto itself.
UF researchers have worked in the bay for years and they have found that, genetically, bay turtles are nearly a separate sub-species and that the population tends to roam primarily within the confines of the bay.
The uniqueness of a release into the wild waters was certainly on display last week.
With Gulf World and its non-profit arm, the Gulf World Marine Institute, which was established after the last major cold-stun event four years ago, transmitting the word of the release on social media, the crowds came out early and stayed well into the afternoon.
A couple from Atlanta en route to Destin detoured to Gulf County for the release.
A woman who had lived in St. Andrews in Bay County for more than a decade but never had the opportunity to see a turtle release, made the 60-minute drive.
A couple from the Midwest, making their annual pilgrimage to the area, delayed their departure by a day to observe the release.
There was also certainly an economic component to the release.
For example, Sunset Coastal Grill did brisk business prior to the noontime release and picked right back up as folks came back in town from St. Joseph Peninsula, according to one of the restaurant’s servers.
“There were people here from Georgia and Alabama,” she said.
Julia Cunningham, a founder member of the Gulf World Marine Institute, handed out dozens of flyers to those interested in donating to the non-profit.
With a healthy sprinkling of locals, the crowds started gathering more than an hour before the scheduled time for the release and by the time Gulf World vans and staff pulled up, there were estimated to be more than 200 people on hand.
They gathered along long lines of tape and “oohed” and “aahhed” with excitement as each turtle was carried from its container to the water, volunteers taking the time to walk closely along the tape lines to get everybody a good look and photo opportunity.
The release also represented an educational opportunity.
Jennifer Jenkins, executive director of the Tourist Development Council, brought her elementary school age daughter to the beach.
“I am a real believer in real-life experience,” Jenkins said. “What a lesson she is learning.”