PORT ARANSAS, Texas (AP) — A rescued green sea turtle named Picasso was released back into the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, carrying the ashes of a self-taught Texas oceanographer who founded the rehabilitation center that helped nurse it back to health.
Hundreds of well-wishers surged forward to get better views during a sunset ceremony that effectively allowed Tony Amos, who devoted his life to helping the endangered reptiles, to do so once more in death. On a stretch of beach named in his honor, Amos' wife, Lynn; his son, Michael; and other relatives sprinkled ashes on the turtle's back, then watched it slowly flap and craw its way into the waves.
"Come on little turtle, off you go. The sun's about to set," called Lynn Amos, when the creature stopped and briefly raised its head, almost as if to acknowledge the onlookers.
Many in attendance were barefoot. Some choked back tears. When the turtle finally disappeared into the shimmering surf, a few cried, "Bye Tony!"
Amos, 80, died of complications from prostate cancer on Sept. 4, mere days after Harvey roared ashore as a fearsome Category 4 hurricane. It damaged the Animal Rehabilitation Keep for ailing sea turtles and aquatic birds that Amos opened nearly four decades ago.
But the turtles there weathered the storm well — as their counterparts in the wild also appear to have done, advocates say.
An early hatching season meant most turtles headed to sea before the storm arrived, with their eggs already hatched rather than lying on the beach to be subsumed. Also, few turtles became stranded inland as Harvey pulled the tide far out and, since the punishing winds and rains subsided, only a relatively small number has washed back onshore or been found among storm debris.
"This certainly could have been worse," said Tim Tristan, executive director of the Texas Sealife Center, a nonprofit rescue and rehabilitation facility in Corpus Christi, close to where Harvey first made landfall Aug. 25. Five of the world's seven sea turtle species are found in the Gulf of Mexico and have been documented in parts of Texas: green, hawksbill, Kemp's ridley, leatherback and loggerhead.
At Amos' turtle and aquatic bird center in the Harvey-ravaged beach town of Port Aransas, the hurricane smashed roof tiles and solar panels and collapsed parts of buildings. Partially submerged, concrete tanks housing around 60 rescue turtles were also damaged, but the animals weren't harmed. Even Barnacle Bill, a 200-plus pound loggerhead who first came to the center in 1997, was fine despite the storm mangling the cover of his pool.
Staff arriving by pickup truck had to steer though downed powerlines and assorted destruction to reach the rehabilitation facility just after Harvey passed. They put turtles in the back before returning a second time with plastic tubs.
Animals well enough were released to sea, but those who weren't went to Tristin's facility, which also sustained roof damage and remains tarped. They will likely remain there for months amid repairs to the Animal Rehabilitation Keep.
Sea turtles generally are good at avoiding hurricanes except for eggs that can be flooded or babies who are displaced from floating mats of seaweed where they feed, said Jeff George, executive director of Sea Turtle, Inc., a rescue and rehabilitation center on South Padre Island near the Texas-Mexico border. As Harvey approached Texas, George and volunteers scoured the beach and collected about 280 eggs that waited out the storm indoors, inside insolated containers. All but a few hatched and were released about a week later.
Since then, only a few recent hatchlings have had to be rescued after washing up on South Padre area beaches, and George said many of those came from the Caribbean, far from their nesting areas near Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Normally the turtle hatching season runs from May through late August, but a mild winter kept the Gulf waters warmer and ensured hatchings began extra early this year — meaning many turtles were born and swam away pre-Harvey.
"You wonder if that was luck or if Mother Nature has things balanced," George said.
In Port Aransas, a few turtles were discovered amid Harvey's wreckage, but most marine experts say it could have been worse.
Amos was born in London and went to Bermuda at 17, trying unsuccessfully to engineer a color, flat-screen television. Having never graduated from college, he moved to Port Aransas in 1976 and became an oceanographer for the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.
Three years later, the Ixtoc I exploratory well exploded in the Gulf about 50 miles from Mexico's coast, and Amos saw the devastating effects of the resulting oil spill on sea life. He later founded the Animal Rehabilitation Keep, which still helps hundreds of turtles and birds annually — tackling everything from pelicans that swallow plastic to turtles stricken with a tumor-causing virus.
Known for a long, white beard that helped him play Santa Claus at Christmas, Amos collected and analyzed debris on Texas beaches and painstakingly entered findings in databases. He also sailed on marine voyages throughout the world.
At the conclusion of Saturday's ceremony, some attendees tossed flowers into the surf behind the turtle — but then went to retrieve them, wary that Amos would have objected to littering in the Gulf.
This story has been corrected to reflect the oceanographer's first name is Tony.