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Aquarium’s popular sea turtle headed back to the wild

ATLANTA — Dylan is going home.
    For the past two years, the loggerhead sea turtle has been a popular attraction at the Georgia Aquarium, flapping around his tank in front of about 5 million visitors.
    Tuesday morning, veterinarians at the aquarium loaded the 7-year-old into the back of a van for a six-hour ride to Jekyll Island on the Georgia coast, where Dylan was first discovered as a hatchling straggler left behind by his nest mates and where he will now be prepped for release back into the wild.
    ‘‘Now is definitely the time,’’ said Tonya Clauss, a veterinarian at the aquarium who has cared for Dylan since Nov. 2005. ‘‘It gives me goose bumps to know we’re sending him back.’’
    Aquarium staffers and others frequently refer to Dylan as a male, although the truth is they’re just not sure. They say it’s nearly impossible to know a sea turtle’s gender until it reaches adulthood, which may take 30 years.
    After Dylan was rescued, the turtle lived at Tidelands Nature Center, which offers hands-on science lessons to the public and school groups. But the loggerhead quickly outgrew his surroundings, leading the Jekyll Island center to look to the world’s largest aquarium for a new home.
    Now, after a couple of years of dining on squid, shrimp and other seafood, he’s tipping the scales at nearly 140 pounds and outgrowing his surroundings at the aquarium, too.
    ‘‘He reached the point where we felt the size of our exhibit wasn’t meeting his needs,’’ said Eric Gaglione, the aquarium’s director of animal husbandry.
    Enter the newly opened Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island.
    The state-run center, dedicated to preserving and rehabilitating the turtles, will spend about two months weaning Dylan from human contact. Officials there expect to have him ready to dive back into the Atlantic in July, but say they won’t rush him out before he shows he can fend for himself.
    ‘‘That’s up to Dylan,’’ said Bill Irwin, director of the turtle center. ‘‘The turtle will tell us when he’s ready to go.’’
    Dylan was expected to be the first turtle at the center, which opened this month. But on Mother’s Day, a turtle they’re calling Georgia was discovered off of Georgia’s Blackbeard Island with deep cuts and a crushed flipper after a run-in with a motorboat.
    ‘‘She certainly will be a long-term patient,’’ said Irwin, who is referring to Georgia as a female because she was found on Mother’s Day.
    Through his tracking monitor, scientists and visitors to the aquarium’s web site will be able to track Dylan’s movements in his natural habitat. Because so few turtles have been released after growing up in captivity, Irwin said scientists can learn a lot from how he acts.
    Loggerhead sea turtles like Dylan are classified as a threatened species. Seven other varieties of sea turtles are endangered.
    Dylan’s return coincides with the beginning of sea turtle nesting season in coastal Georgia. The first loggerhead nest of the years was spotted last week on Cumberland Island, near Jekyll.
    Back at the aquarium, Gaglione said there were some mixed emotions among the staffers who stood and watched Dylan’s van pull into downtown Atlanta’s rush-hour traffic. Returning to the Georgia coast means freedom for Dylan, but it also exposes him to shrimper’s nets, boat motors and other hazards — many of them manmade.
    ‘‘There’s a little bit of emotion there; you can’t help but be attached,’’ Gaglione said. ‘‘There are risks, sure. But we can’t allow that to hold us back.’’
    ———
    On the Net:
    Georgia Aquarium, http://www.georgiaaquarium.org
    Georgia Sea Turtle Center, http://www.seaturtle.org

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