Critically Endangered Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles Rescued on Cape Cod Beaches
Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary just rescued three juvenile Kemp's ridley sea turtles on the morning of Wednesday, November 17. These little ones were the first turtles to be found on Cape Cod beaches near Orleans during the cold-stunning season of 2021.
Marisa Bernal of the New England Aquarium explains that hundreds of cold-stunned sea turtles wash up on the beaches of Cape Cod each year.
“Because of the rapidly changing water temperature and wind pattern, many turtles cannot escape the unique hook-like area of Cape Cod Bay before becoming hypothermic,” Bernal writes. “Starting in November, volunteers comb the beaches looking for stranded turtles.”
Kemp's ridley sea turtles are critically endangered and the volunteers at Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary worked quickly to get them to the Sea Turtle Hospital at the New England Aquarium for medical treatment.
The New England Aquarium has been preparing for the return of cold-stunning season by running "turtle drills" at the hospital for several weeks. She details the process thoroughly in the “Turtle Drills: Practice Makes Perfect” article.
Linda Lory is the Senior Biologist at the New England Aquarium. According to Lory, the “internal average temperature for each arriving turtle was 54°F. The lowest temperature at which a turtle can still have metabolic function is 55°F.”
Part of the rehabilitation process is filling tanks with 55°F water and letting the turtles swim for 10 to 15 minutes in order to gauge how the animal is maneuvering. If the turtles do well on the swim test, they will slowly increase the temperature of the water over several days in order to acclimate the animal gradually back to 75°F.
These sea turtles were lucky that the interns and volunteers went through extensive training to prepare for this exact scenario. Karen Dourdeville is the sea turtle stranding coordinator for Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. She commented on what needs to happen for this effort to be successful in the future.
"At this point in the year, sea turtles' only chance of survival is for strong onshore winds to blow them onto a beach where one of our trained volunteers - or a knowledgeable beach-walker - can find it," Dourdeville said. "Then they need to move the turtle to above the high-tide line, cover it with seaweed, and call Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary at 508-349-2615, ext. 6104, for further instructions."
Dourdeville stated that this is the latest start to the cold-stun event due in large part to the very warm fall and the team has rescued or recovered nine sea turtles so far, all of them critically endangered juvenile Kemp's ridleys.