Two rare sightings twice on the shores of Florida in recent weeks have conservationists reaching for the record books.
The sightings are of leucistic sea turtle hatchlings, creamy-colored tiny turtles whose lack of pigment gives them a pale blond look that distinguishes them from their fellow turtles and differentiates them from even albino species.
“It’s a lack of pigment, so it’s not exactly like albinism,” Melissa Ranly, the director of sea turtle rehabilitation at the Volusia Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, Fla., told ABCNews.com. “They actually have pigment in their eyes so they have brownish or blackish eyes instead of the pink you see in albinos.”
Ranly and her team were responsible for nursing back to health one of the two leucistic hatchlings recently discovered on Florida’s East Coast, near Daytona Beach. The first hatchling, found along the coast of Flagler and St. Johns counties, was strong enough to go out into the waters on its own.
The second, found near New Smyrna Beach, was too weak and so was taken to the county-operated center where it spent two weeks in a shallow pool filled with seaweed and vegetation, designed to mimic the ocean, being fed finely chopped fish filets and shrimp to gain strength.
The hatchling was deemed strong enough Sunday to make it on its own and delivered by boat about 50 to 100 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We feed them up and get them strong and then take them out on a boat ride to the seaweed line to release them,” Ranly said of the hatchlings. “That’s their shelter and their food source where they’ll spend a good portion of their first year. They spend a good bit of their first life there.”
While it’s not rare for conservationists to find hatchlings too small to make it on their own among the more than 900 nests on 30 miles of shore, it is rare to find the lightly pigmented creatures during the October-to-May hatching season.
“If you figure there are about 100 eggs per nest, statistically, it’s not common to see them,” Ranly said. “That’s why it’s a big deal. We don’t see them as often.”
Once the hatchlings are returned to the water, they are on their own, Ranly said, because their size, less than half an ounce in weight and 2 inches in length, makes them too small for tracking devices.
“Getting them back out there and giving them every chance the other hatchlings have is our goal,” she said.
“The biggest concern is that they don’t have the UV protection, so they can end up with sunburns and cancers and, just like any other leucistic or albino animals in the wild, they’re pretty obvious to their predators.”