How to Save a Cold-Stunned Sea Turtle


Thanks to the rescue and rehabilitation efforts of the New England Aquarium, cold-stunned sea turtles like Rorschach (#10) (photo by the NEAQ sea turtle rescue team)

Each year, around 50 to 200 sea turtles will beach themselves on the shores of the Massachusetts coastline from late October through December as a result of cold stunning. For those who may not be familiar with this term, “cold stunning” is when a sea turtle is exposed to cold water temperatures that are less than 65 degrees followed by a sudden hypothermic reaction. The symptoms include decrease in heart rate, a decrease in circulation, lethargy, shock, dehydration, pneumonia, and even death.  But the question that many people have in mind is why do these turtles come to Massachusetts waters in the first place? Well, this is because every summer when the water temperature gets to be about 70 degrees, the sea turtles (many of which are Kemp’s Ridleys) will feed on crabs in Cape Cod Bay after swimming through the Gulf Stream Current. The waters of Cape Cod Bay serve as a rich and hospitable seasonal habitat for the migrating animals who could often be seen in bays, inlets, and sheltering harbors. However, by late-October, the turtles will begin to migrate south to the warm waters of Florida, and the Caribbean while those who get trapped in the arm of the Cape, especially those feeding in shallow and inlet waters, will eventually become victims of cold stunning and before being pulled by the wind to the beaches of Cape Cod.  Once these turtles strand on the beach thanks to the unforgiving winds, they are now at the mercy of the icy cold waves and tides. There, the clock begins to tick when it comes to matter of life and death.

This is where organizations like the Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary of Wellfleet Bay and the New England Aquarium come in. During the cold stunning season, volunteers will patrol the beaches after high tide in search of sea turtles in need of rescuing from the icy cold waters. Once a turtle is found, sometimes, volunteers will gently touch it to check for a reaction to see if it’s either a live or dead and sometimes, it’s hard to determine that because some animals could be found, show no reaction, be presumed dead before finally showing a reaction. Turtle experts call this “Lazarus turtles” because of this coma-like reaction that some of the turtles present. Meanwhile, once the turtles are rescued, they are transported to Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary where they are held for a short period of time before being transported to the New England Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Facility in Quincy where they could receive treatment for up to two years depending on their condition on a long-term basis. Sometimes, some of these turtle patients will be transferred to other facilities like SeaWorld, or the National Aquarium in Baltimore  where they will continue their rehabilitation before being released in the spring and early summer months in the waters off Florida’s Atlantic coast.

After nearly six to eight months of rehabilitation, the remaining sea turtles (the ones who were never transported to other facilities) are released into either the Atlantic Coasts of Florida, Virginia, and southern Cape Cod where some of the animals are satellite tagged so that biologists can continue to keep track on the progress of the released animals in all hopes they do get themselves stuck in Cape Cod Bay again and return to their tropical habitats.

Kemp's Ridley sea turtles released off the coast of Florida in April 2011 (photo by NEAQ)

What can you do if you see a cold-stunned sea turtle:

1. Do not put it back in the water. Do not remove it from the beach.
Move it above the high tide line.
2. Cover it with seaweed and mark its location with a stick, buoy or other beach debris.
3. Call the Massachusetts Wellfleet Audubon Society at 508-349-2615 or the New England Aquarium’s rescue hotline at 617-973-5247and leave a message as to its location. Please be as specific as possible in giving directions from the nearest beach access so rescuers and volunteers can recover the turtle quickly.

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