By Derrick Bryson Taylor
As the calendar enters winter and water temperatures in parts of the Atlantic Ocean drop, dozens of cold-stunned sea turtles that washed ashore in Massachusetts in critical condition have been flown south on private planes for the winter.
No, these sea turtles aren’t the most glamorous reptiles in the Northeast, but the special treatment they are receiving could save their lives.
This month, conservationists with the New England Aquarium sea turtle hospital in Boston sent the largest group yet of endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, 51 of them in varying conditions, to facilities in Florida, according to Adam Kennedy, director of rescue and rehabilitation at the aquarium. The aquarium needed to make room for new arrivals.
It was the latest group to be flown south in recent weeks. Three weeks ago, 35 turtles were flown to facilities in North Carolina, according to a news release from the aquarium, and another 15 turtles were taken to the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
Sixteen of the Florida-bound turtles were sent to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The rest were divided among the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach and the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota.
Kennedy said that all the rescued turtles are young, between 1 and 3 years old, and that rescuing and eventually releasing them into the ocean plays a role in their conservation.
“At this stage, they have a better chance of making it to adulthood than when they were hatchlings,” he said. “And then obviously, once they get to adulthood, they can grow and nest, and have more babies.”
The flights were arranged with volunteer pilots from nonprofit organization Turtles Fly Too. “I know we’re flying and we’re talking about conservation, but these turtles are still in really bad condition,” Kennedy said, adding that the transportation needed to be quick. “You don’t want to put them through undue stress, which would set them back and possibly kill them.”
Sea turtles are coldblooded and lack the ability to regulate their body temperature. When the water temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, their internal body temperature also falls, causing them to become cold-stunned, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service. In this condition, the turtles become weak and inactive, and may be washed to the shore. If their temperature remains low or the turtles are not rescued, they may develop health problems or die.
Cold-stunning events are not uncommon and can affect hundreds or even thousands of sea turtles annually. These events can take place in extreme cold-weather events and have occurred repeatedly in recent decades in waters as far north as Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts and as far south as Corpus Christi Bay in Texas.
Sea turtles, some pushed along by strong winds, began appearing on the shores of Cape Cod in early November, according to the New England Aquarium. More than 200 sea turtles have been treated so far this season, including 186 critically endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles, 19 green turtles and six loggerheads.
The aquarium said that some of the turtles suffered from dehydration and pneumonia and had injuries like fractured shells. As a result, treatment can range from a week up to more than a year before the turtles can be released into the ocean.
“Our survivorship is anywhere between 70 and 80%, depending on how severe the winter is,” Kennedy said. “Once they make it through their first three days in rehabilitation and they get to what we would consider a more normal body temperature and what waters they would normally be occupying, the rate does go up pretty high.”
Kennedy said about 400 sea turtles on average were rescued each year.
“Our hope is that the winds blow, they get all the turtles in, because any turtles that are out in Cape Cod Bay at this time are not going to survive,” he said. “They’re out there trying to do their best, hoping that it’s going to get warm. But folks up in the Northeast know, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.”