GULFPORT, Miss. — Nearly 300 people gathered on the beach near Cowan Road in Gulfport on Saturday to watch nine Kemp's ridley sea turtles paddle their way to freedom.
One loggerhead turtle also made the journey from plastic storage crate to the warm salt water of the Mississippi Sound.
The Kemp's ridley is one of the country's most endangered turtle species, said Institute for Marine Mammal Studies Executive Director Moby Solangi.
"From the time they're born it's one in 10,000 odds that they'll make it to adulthood," he said.
All 10 of the turtles were rescued by IMMS officials this year then treated for their injuries and rehabilitated at the facility in Gulfport.
Two in the bunch released Saturday wore satellite tags so their movements can be tracked. Their journey can be followed on the IMMS website.
Boy Scout troops from Ocean Springs, Gulfport and Long Beach were on hand to watch the release and some even helped set them free.
"It's great for the kids to see that," said Cub Scout mom Dawn Clayton of Gulfport.
Solangi said fishermen are catching sea turtles off piers at an alarming rate. He suspects the animals are hungry and going after the bait, getting hooked in the process.
He urges fishermen to call IMMS at 1-888-SOS-DOLPHIN (1-888-767-3657) if they observe any stranded sea turtles, nesting sea turtle activity or captured sea turtles on fishing piers or boats.
Removal of hooks should be done by a professional or the turtle could be seriously injured or killed, he said.
"There have been instances reported that some folks have gutted a turtle to get its shell as a souvenir, which is highly illegal and could involve a jail sentence and a hefty fine," he said.
Jamie Miller, executive director for the state Department of Marine Resources, witnessed his first beach release. His 9-year-old son Landon toted the turtle to the water's edge and waded in to his knees. The turtle's flippers were flapping as it got closer to the water and Landon tightened his grip before he sent it on its way to its next adventure.
Audra O'Boyle, 9, of Woolmarket knows what to do if she ever sees a turtle in distress.
"I'd call IMMS, because IMMS can take care of them," she said.