Marine Turtle Trauma Response Procedures:  A Veterinary Guide

Norton, Terry and Nancy Mettee (2020) WIDECAST Technical Report No. 20

Release Criteria

It is often difficult to determine when a turtle is ready for release back into the wild. Decisions are based on a variety of factors including the health of the turtle, availability of space, ambient temperature, and weather conditions. Any turtle would be safer in the ocean if the hospital is in the path of a major hurricane. A sea turtle that is marginal but improving may be released early if a more severe case is admitted that needs the tank space. Leatherbacks become so stressed in captivity that release is often the best medical option.

Subjectively, we like to see turtles aggressively feeding, and exhibiting a "pacing" type of behavior. The pacing behavior typically develops when the turtle has sufficient strength for extraneous activity. It involves a restless movement back and forth in the tank during waking hours. These turtles are strong and often become agitated when handled.

Objectively, we use a number of criteria to evaluate a rehab patient for release:

Normal blood work parameters
    • To be determined by rehab veterinarian
    • Normal red and white blood cell count with no severe plasma abnormalities
Gaining weight steadily for 4 weeks
    • Actively feeding and able to dive and retrieve food
    • Ability to capture live food if appropriate
    • Physical therapy may be needed if animal is compensating for disability

Off medications for at least 4 weeks

    • No oral or injectable medications with the exception of vitamin supplements
All injuries/surgical sites healed
    • No open wounds, no bleeding edges
    • Only mature (often pigmented) granulation tissue

Normal activity, strength, and responses

    • Active, often pacing, strong and feisty with effective escape attempts


    • Has completed standard deworming protocol as determined by rehab staff
    • Has had PIT and flipper tags placed along with final measurements
    • In some instances (amputation) tagging may be customized
Based on the health issues which prompted hospitalization, the following may also be included:
    • No radiographic evidence of osteomyelitis
    • Negative cultures of blood or wounds
    • Negative bone scan

Release location

Where the turtle stranded should dictate where it is released. Although ocean waters mix and sea turtles are prolific swimmers, every effort should be made to return them to the area in which they stranded. During growth and development, sea turtles use a variety of differing habitats. Returning them to an area near the stranding location will allow them to return to their preferred habitat for foraging. Releases are daytime only, with the exception of frenzied hatchlings which should be released at night to avoid predation. 

Release protocol
Releasing a patient is truly a cause for celebration and the moment to focus public attention on your rehabilitation program. If a release has been planned off the beach, it is an opportunity for public outreach and much needed publicity. Patient safety is the number one concern. The release procedure should be detailed and communicated to all involved. 
This chapter should be cited: Mettee, Nancy. 2014. Release Criteria. Marine Turtle Trauma Response Procedures:  A Veterinary Guide. WIDECAST Technical Report No. 17. Accessed online [date].
Updated 6/2013

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