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MELBOURNE BEACH, Florida (Florida Today) -- Growing restless in her landlocked corral, Shelley the sea turtle began banging her flippers against the wooden walls, itching to crawl back into the ocean.

Minutes later, Shelley got her wish. Scooting at high speed — relatively speaking — the satellite transmitter-equipped reptile drew cheers from hundreds of beach spectators by plodding into the surf Sunday morning during the Tour de Turtles kickoff at the Barrier Island Center.

"That's about as fast as a loggerhead can move on land," Sea Turtle Conservancy Executive Director David Godfrey remarked to the crowd via bullhorn.

Melba, a markedly larger female loggerhead boasting a 42-inch-long shell, was released shortly afterward, generating gasps from children. She also sped into the sea, unlike some of Brevard County's past Tour de Turtles competitors that lounged on the sand during leisurely beach treks.

Now in its seventh year, Tour de Turtles generates publicity for STC-University of Central Florida scientific study of the nomadic habits of loggerhead, green, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles.

"We're looking for migration routes. Because they nest here in Central Florida, but they feed somewhere else. They don't eat here while they're nesting, so they travel hundreds, thousands of miles to a feeding area," said Dan Evans, a STC technology specialist who boasts 14 years of turtle satellite-tracking experience.

"Every year, we discover something new. They go someplace different or unexpected. Recently, we had one go to the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico," Evans said.

Common migration destinations include The Bahamas, the Gulf of Mexico off the southwest Florida coast, and Chesapeake Bay, where the turtles feast on horseshoe crabs.

Shelley and Melba will "race" against nine other transmitter-outfitted turtles. The creature that swims the farthest in three months is declared the winner, and fans can track the turtles' travels online.

Rival reptiles include Anna and Elsa, two loggerheads that were released Saturday at Disney's Vero Beach Resort. Caribbean competitors of varying species hail from Costa Rica, Panama and Nevis.

Sunday's turtle releases were delayed a half hour because the gray epoxy cementing the transmitters to their carapaces had not yet dried. Why? It took volunteers two hours to scrape a thick layer of algae, barnacles and dirt off Melba's shell — "it was almost like its own turf grass," Evans said.

"It's basically like a manicure, a little spa day for her," he joked.

Turtle transmitters cost about $2,000 each and typically function for about two years until the antennae fail, he said. Ginger, a hawksbill released in July 2007 from Nevis, set the benchmark by transmitting for 1,670 days, or nearly five years.

Loggerhead turtles begin laying eggs at 20 to 25 years of age, said Ryan Chabot, a UCF Marine Turtle Research Group member who is pursuing a master's degree in biology.

Chabot and other UCF students count and monitor Brevard turtle nests as far north as Patrick Air Force Base. He said 11,000 to 12,000 loggerheads will likely nest in the Brevard portion of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge by season's end, a marked improvement from the species's "steep and serious decline" in the early 2000s.

Volunteers captured Shelley and Melba overnight after they nested near the Barrier Island Center, which is located within the wildlife refuge.

Both turtles were hauled in their corrals to the release site via a buggy fashioned from a jet ski cart. During previous Tour de Turtles events, Evans said a team of strong-armed volunteers had to haul the heavy reptiles across the beach "Cleopatra-style."

Contact Neale at 321-242-3638, rneale@floridatoday.com or follow @RickNeale1.

Turtle tracker

To follow the travels of Shelley and Melba, visit tourdeturtles.org.

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