It was a poignant day for friends and family of late sea turtle advocate Betsy Sandstrom, as the Conservancy of Southwest Florida released a loggerhead turtle named in Betsy's honor into the wild Tuesday.
Sandstrom was a long-time volunteer with the group Turtle Time, keeping track of sea turtle nests on Gulf beaches. Her sister Martha Gill said Sandstrom had loved nature ever since they were little girls.
"We grew up in Michigan on a lake, and she was always catching frogs and turtles," Gill said, noting that when her sister moved to Florida, she focused that passion on sea turtles.
"She would mark them off and name the nests, and count the eggs and make sure they were safe," Betsy's friend Andrea Jones said of Betsy's work with Turtle Time.
Betsy's battle with terminal cancer put an end to that activity. But when the Conservancy of Southwest Florida had a contest to name their new loggerhead sea turtle in their Dalton Discovery Center two years ago, Jones submitted Betsy's name.
"I thought, 'let's just pay it forward for a friend who's dying and make her happy,'" Jones said. "It was all about just making her happy and doing something kind."
Sandstrom got to meet her namesake turtle during an emotional introduction at the Conservancy, attended by numerous friends and family, before she passed away in 2014.
"She was very sick, even when the naming process happened," said Nicki Dardinger of the Conservancy. "It was a great honor to be able to name our sea turtle after her."
When Betsy the turtle got to be about 30 pounds, Conservancy staffers knew it was time to set her free in the Gulf of Mexico. While the occasion was bittersweet, Sandstrom's family knows she will be watching from a distance when her namesake lays her own eggs in her own nest someday.
"All of us want to leave a legacy," Gill said. "To leave a legacy of our passion and love is everyone's dream. And this was Betsy's dream."