When Queen saw the ocean for the first time in more than a year, she stopped to let a wave wash over her.
Last summer, a group of beach-goers found her majesty stranded and covered in pluff mud on Kiawah Island. The female loggerhead sea turtle had cataracts on her eyes and coral growing on her shell.
She also had debilitated turtle syndrome, which meant she was lethargic and not eating — a dangerous combination. And so, on June 13, 2020, she was admitted to the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Hospital for care.
But on Tuesday morning, as an amber sun rose above Folly Beach, Queen finally found her way home.
“She looks very ready to go,” Susan McLauglin, an educator at the S.C. Aquarium narrated as she captured the moment on a Facebook Live video.
When Queen was admitted for care, she weighed 147 pounds. Now, it would take seven aquarium staff members to lift all 202 pounds of her when they arrived at the beach for a private staff-only sea turtle release.
They hoisted her out of an open crate in a special yellow sling, and walked her down toward the water so that she could save her energy for the journey ahead. And, thanks to two cataract surgeries in each eye, Queen could now see again.
When her flippers touched the sand, she began moving forward. Then, she paused to feel her first ocean wave in 13 months.
After the waters washed over Queen, it was as if she was pulled onward by the receding tide itself. With her flippers digging into the sand, the loggerhead pushed herself forward and back toward the sea.
“Sometimes, if we watch closely, we can see her come up for one more big breath of air, too. Or,” McLaughlin said, chuckling, “she might just take off.”
Then the S.C. Aquarium staff burst into applause on the beach.
It was an emotional moment after a difficult year.
In the fall of 2020, it was unclear if the aquarium would even be able to continue doing this type of work.
Each year, about 80% of the aquarium’s income comes from its general admission tickets and membership sales. That once-dependable revenue stream evaporated in 2020, when the pandemic forced the aquarium to shut its doors for 68 days.
Compounding the pain, the closure also came at the start of the aquarium’s busy season.
As a result, the unexpected financial crisis threw the aquarium’s Sea Turtle Care Center, which has rehabilitated and released more than 300 turtles like Queen in the past 20 years, into jeopardy. There were also two rounds of layoffs that cut staff by 25%.
In March, after a public fundraising drive that asked visitors and locals to imagine a world without the aquarium, the organization announced the community had saved them and, as a result, creatures like Queen.
“It was inconceivable to us that we might lose our ability to educate schoolchildren, or save the lives of sick and injured sea turtles — programs that define the very heart and soul of our mission,” Kevin Mills, president and CEO of the South Carolina Aquarium, said in a statement at the time.
Tuesday’s release was private and not announced in advance to keep crowds down and make animal care the top priority. But the private release was also a special thank-you for the staff.
Many of them, McLauhglin said in the video, had never gotten to go to a sea turtle release themselves.
In addition to Queen, a juvenile Kemp’s ridley named Charlotte was also released.