GULFPORT, Mississippi -- One by one, 22 tagged Kemp's ridley sea turtles that had been rehabilitated at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies were released into the Gulf of Mexico south of Ship Island on Friday morning.
Three of the turtles had satellite tags on the backs of their shells, which will help researchers keep tabs on where the turtles go.
Moby Solangi, IMMS director, said it was the largest group of Kemp's ridleys returned to the Gulf since the study began in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
"It is amazing," he said. "They have a GPS system and they follow magnetic fields so they can find their way. They can find their home no matter where you release them. They travel through the Gulf and find the same spot."
"Strider," a female turtle fitted with a satellite transmitter, was released last year in Florida, came to Mississippi, then traveled to Mexico and is now back in Louisiana -- a trip of about 3,000 miles, Solangi said.
Three of the 22 turtles released Friday from IMMS and Coast Guard boats carried satellite tags, which transmit the location of the turtles in six-hour periods night and day, Solangi said.
"We want to insure the success of the released animals," he said. The transmitters give an indication of the how the sea turtles survive after their release.
"This area is home for them," Solangi said. "That's what we have found out."
The turtles range from the Chandeleurs, Breton Sound to the Mississippi Sound, he said.
The turtles are on the endangered species list, but Solangi said there is no count on how many turtles there are in the Gulf of Mexico.
Kemp's ridley strandings in Mississippi in 2012
January -- 2
February -- 0
March -- 56
April -- 46
May -- 20
June -- 14
July -- 1
Total -- 137
Source: NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources
"There is a big void. You can't tell what you've lost when don't know what you had," he said.
The 2010 oil spill instigated the IMMS study, he said.
"It really reminded us of the importance of what we have in the Gulf, which had been neglected by the federal government for a long period of time,
Solangi said. "I think this was a good kick in the pants to get our act together."
Little was known about the Kemp's ridleys, but the research has been filling in the blanks, he said.
"Now we know their home ranges. We know their site fidelity. We know their habitat. It is a long-term process, but we are finding out a lot more than we knew, which was very little," he said.
The turtles lay their eggs in Mexico, but critical habitat is also from Louisiana to Alabama where young Kemp's ridleys forage and mature, he said.
Dr. Heidi Zurawka, IMMS staff veterinarian, said all the turtles released Friday had been caught by hooks and rehabilitated at IMMS.
"Some of them come in fairly robust," she said. "They look healthy. We run blood work and do X-rays on them. They have all normal findings other than the hook. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time looking for an easy meal."
But in some cases the turtles are experiencing other problems such as pneumonia or other infections, she said.
And additional hooks are found internally in some of the turtles, which requires surgery for removal, she said.
Zurawka said there are signs on piers with numbers to call if turtles are caught.