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Longboat Key Thursday, Jun. 23, 2022 1 month ago

Pair of boaters help save tangled turtle near Longboat Key

A fishing trip turned into a successful rescue operation.
by: Lesley Dwyer Staff Writer

Two everyday anglers turned into wildlife heroes after assisting an entangled sea turtle and an injured dolphin on June 15. Dawn Milstead and Laura Groppo were doing what they do most days: They left their dock from Anna Maria Island and headed out for a day of boating and fishing.

What the couple initially mistook for a big fish was a female loggerhead turtle caught in the ropes of a crab trap. “The turtle was struggling. We could tell it was in distress,” Milstead said. As they pulled the boat closer, the turtle went under the water and out of sight.

A female loggerhead turtle being untangled from a crab trap. (Courtesy photo)

Milstead thought fast and tagged the boat’s GPS coordinates. Next, she called her brother-in-law, Steve Howard, because he volunteers for the Longboat Key Turtle Watch. Howard gave her a 24-hour hotline number for the stranding investigations program at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. 

Milstead and Groppo were too busy getting help to take a picture, so they gave a detailed description of what they saw. “We remembered the color of the buoy and a little bit about the turtle itself,” Groppo said. Then, they were asked to stay in the area and keep looking for the turtle in case it resurfaced. 

The boat was less than a mile out from Longboat Pass, so Mote coordinated with the Manatee County Sheriff's Marine Unit, which regularly patrols the area. Mote relies heavily on law enforcement agencies in both Sarasota and Manatee counties because they have bigger, more powerful boats to navigate choppy waters and take large animals on board.

“We knew it would be very difficult to get an adult loggerhead onto our boat if it needed to come in for rehab,” said Amber Lea Kincaid, Mote’s stranding biologist.

It took the rescue team about an hour to reach Milstead and Groppo’s boat. As the women circled around looking for the loggerhead, a dolphin swam in and out of their wake for nearly half that time. They spotted, what looked to be, a 10-inch lure hooked into the side of its mouth. “It was heartbreaking because I felt like it was saying, ‘Get this out! Get this out!’” Groppo said.

It’s not uncommon for dolphins to follow fishing boats looking for an easy meal. Groppo gave the video to Mote, and the dolphin was added to a watch list within a larger Florida stranding network. “Dolphins are hard because they don’t always stick around when they need our help,” Kincaid said. 

The loggerhead did stick around, though. Even though the women didn’t see her resurface in the hour they waited, within 10 minutes, the rescue boat located her. What Kincaid originally thought was the buoy ended up being an inner tube. As they went to retrieve it from the water, they saw the loggerhead pop her head up. 

The line was wrapped once around her neck, and the rest was twisted up in the water beside her. Kincaid assessed the loggerhead as feisty and not in need of rehab, so they performed a remote disentanglement. The line was untwisted until the turtle was able to get her neck out. This turtle didn’t have any abrasions, but the concern in these cases is that the entangling material can cut into the skin and cause an infection later on. 

This rescue had a happy ending. The turtle swam away, and the women headed home. “It was just bizarre. The weather was coming in, and we were boogying to get back,” Groppo said. It was then that Milstead spotted another turtle. The couple sees turtles regularly from their boat, but never two in one day. “We’re convinced it was her saying, ‘thank you,’” Milstead said. 


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