Johnny the turtle has checked out of rehab and checked back into his natural environment, three years after losing his way from the Gulf of Mexico and ending up washed ashore in the Netherlands.
The endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle was released into the ocean near Sarasota, Fla., on Tuesday with 300 well-wishers to send him off.
Dr. Tony Tucker, program manager for Mote Marine Laboratory Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program, who was on hand to release Johnny into the sea, explained that baby turtles float on little rafts of sargassum-commonly known as brown seaweed-when they are newborn and growing.
"This was a little turtle that instead of hanging near the shore, its little sargassum clump got swept away by the current," Tucker said. "It took the wrong turn as the current spun off."
In 2008, the turtle likely got pulled into the powerful Gulf Stream, ending up in Europe, Tucker said. The turtle was rescued in the Netherlands and cared for at the Rotterdam Zoo, where they nicknamed him Johnny.
Next, he traveled to the Oceanario de Lisboa aquarium in Portugal and then to a rehabilitation facility at Zoomarine in Portugal, where the turtle has spent much of the past three years.
"From the time he stranded in 2008 until he was able to make the journey back, they have been making sure his health was good, feeding him, allowing him to grow," Tucker said.
Johnny's caretakers in Portugal were "enamored" with the turtle, Tucker said, and started calling it Johnny Vasco da Gama, after Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, due to his extensive traveling.
Once it was determined that the turtle was from the Gulf of Mexico region, it took several years to return it because of complex international laws for humans transporting endangered species.
"Anytime you see the word 'permit' with endangered species, there's a substantial amount of paperwork," Tucker said. "Unfortunately, turtles are international citizens. They move regardless of what we are constrained by [legally]."
In November, the jet-setting turtle finally arrived in Miami and was cared for at Mote and equipped with a satellite transmitter that allows researchers to track Johnny's whereabouts and progress.
On Tuesday, Johnny was gently placed on the beach in Lido Key, Fla., and coaxed back into the water to begin re-adjusting life in the wild.
While Johnny's "international homecoming" was celebrated, Tucker said it is important to recognize that "there are lots of turtles that are nameless and faceless in the Gulf that have an equivalent story."
Recent events including the Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Irene have displaced many turtles in the region, some who have recently been found stranded as far as Scotland.