Frigid Weather Brings in First Major Batch of Stranded Sea Turtles

Ten endangered Kemp's Ridleys collected by Mass Audubon on Outer Cape...
New England Aquarium staffers work with a cold-stunned turtle. (Courtesy photo)

The start of the sea turtle stranding season on Cape Cod started a little late and slowly with only one live turtle being rescued each day of the Veterans Day long weekend, but that trio of rewarmed and now feisty sea turtles at the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital in Quincy today are being joined by ten more endangered Kemp’s Ridley. The record cold weather has dropped the temperature of Cape Cod Bay to 52 degrees, which is the key threshold temperature that marks the beginning of the annual mass stranding of sea turtles on the Cape. This event does not occur anywhere else in the world to this scale on a yearly basis. Hundreds of sea turtles are likely to strand over the next six weeks.

The rescued sea turtles have been collected off the frigid beaches by Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and have been transported to the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital in Quincy. There, the sea turtles with body temperatures in the high 40’s will be slowly rewarmed over several days. They will also be treated for other life-threatening medical conditions, such as pneumonia, severe dehydration and a variety of infections. These turtles are not only very cold but also very ill. Rehab time for most turtles, before eventual release much further south, is usually several months.

These young sea turtles visit southern New England waters each summer to feed on crabs. Many of those that get on the north side of Cape Cod are unable to figure out how to navigate out of Cape Cod Bay in the autumn. As water temperatures drop, they  slowly become hypothermic and very inactive. If they are lucky, they get washed ashore. The Kemps and two other species that also strand are either threatened or endangered due to the impacts of human activities. Rescuing, rehabilitating and eventually releasing these critically important marine animals has been a joint conservation effort of the Aquarium and Mass Audubon for more than 25 years. Over that time, the Aquarium has rehabbed and eventually arranged for the release of thousands of Kemp Ridley’s, the world’s most endangered sea turtle species.

CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTS: For a couple of decades, the first stranded turtles on average arrived in early November. With warmer water temperatures over the last several years, that date is often a week or two later. Sea turtles will continue to strand on Cape cod until mid to late December depending on the weather. Prior to 2011, an average year yielded about 90 live sea turtles being rescued and treated, but over the last several years, that average has moved to more than 300 sea turtles. 


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