GULF SHORES, Ala. (WKRG) — In front of an estimated crowd of 500 people, a homecoming for a loggerhead sea turtle. “They smell the water, they know they’re home, and they’re going,” says Donna Dick with the Alabama Stranding Network.

This is the last leg of a journey that started three months ago when the 125-pound turtle was hooked by an angler on the State Park Pier, brought to shore by a couple of jet skiers, and then taken to a Mississippi to be nursed back to health.

“It almost made me cry,” Dick said. In the crowd watching the turtle struggle through the sand, Debbie Cole from Indiana said with her hand on her heart, “Still, right now I’ve got tears in my eyes. It just touches you right here.”

2021 has been a rough year for sea turtles on Alabama beaches. This season turtles, mostly loggerheads, laid only 66 nests. All but six of them were impacted to some degree by a very stormy, wet summer. Still, more than 1,800 hatchlings made it to the water, according to Share the Beach, just like this loggerhead.

“I feel like it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Cole said. “I know it is. I’ll probably never see that again.”

An endangered species returned to its natural habitat, but this may have had a different story if not for the kindness of strangers.