GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Mississippi's First Lady, Marsha Barbour, enjoyed an adventure on the Mississippi Sound Monday morning. She hand-released four Kemp's Ridley turtles, returning the endangered marine animals to the waters just southeast of Deer Island.
The turtles released are among 40 turtles rescued and rehabilitated at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport.
Marsha Barbour was "honored and excited" to release the juvenile Kemp's Ridley turtles from the back of a DMR boat. The four turtles, three hooked by fishermen and the other caught by a shrimper, were nursed back to health at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies.
The institute director suspects a large number of turtles were trying to escape the oil spill.
"What we believe the reason there were a large number of turtles in our area, or a large number of strandings, was because they were moving out of areas that were affected," said Dr. Moby Solangi, who spoke at a news conference prior to the turtles' release.
DMR Director Dr. Bill Walker said the turtles' release is a real sign the recovery part of this process has begun.
"We don't find any additional threat to new oil in the Gulf of Mexico anywhere. Off of our state or off of any other state," said Dr. Walker.
The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies has rescued some 40 turtles since the oil spill began. And of that number, just five turtles, all from Alabama, showed visible signs of oil.
But in the larger picture, NOAA reports that, gulf wide, some 500 turtles have been rescued. And of those 500, some 450 showed visible signs of oiling.
A NOAA representative said that's largely because so many turtles were rescued in and around the oil spill site.
"We were predominately looking where the oil was. So, as the ocean currents moved it east or west, we were at times, very close to the source," said Alexis Gutierrez, with NOAA.
The first lady was glad to lend a hand in releasing the now healthy turtles. She's a former recreational diver who enjoys interaction with marine animals.
"We, down here especially, know how to recover. We're recovering from Katrina and everything is going forward. And this is another sign everything is going forward on this manmade disaster," said Mrs. Barbour.
Prior to Monday's release, 24 turtles from Mississippi were released in Florida waters.
Dr. Solangi said with our state's fisheries now open again, he's pleased the turtles can be returned to Mississippi waters.