Saving the World’s Most Endangered Sea Turtle

Stranded on Cape Cod beaches, these Kemp’s ridley turtles are getting a helping hand from volunteers and researchers

When some turtles swim south in the fall, scores of them get trapped by Cape Cod, where many die of hypothermia. (Herb Swanson)
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After the turtles are bundled up at Wellfleet, volunteers and staffers transport them to a clinic at the New England Aquarium in Boston. The clinic is crammed with microscopes, computers and medical equipment as well as tanks of blue water that gurgle and hum.

“Welcome to the real world, Bud,” a volunteer in surgical scrubs says to a turtle that she plucks out of a box. She lays the seemingly lifeless animal on an examining table. Jill Gary, a biologist with the aquarium, sinks a needle into the back of its neck and draws out thick, maroon-colored blood. Gary squirts yellow antiseptic into the animal’s eyes and checks the cornea for scratches. The volunteer has been holding a monitor to the turtle’s heart. “I’ve had only one heartbeat so far,” she says.

Gary inserts a rectal thermometer into the turtle and the animal springs to life. Its temperature is 53.8 degrees Fahrenheit, about 20 degrees below normal. Gary, however, is in no rush to change that.

When people at the aquarium began treating cold-stunned sea turtles extensively, in the mid-1990s, little was known about hypothermia in the animals. Through trial and error and the testing of various medications, they have figured out how to save about 80 percent of the turtles brought into the aquarium.

Charlie Innis, the aquarium’s head veterinarian, says the animals die if they warm up too quickly. As the turtle’s temperature rises, pathogenic bacteria that have lain dormant in its body also revive. The turtle’s immune system, compromised by hypothermia, isn’t up to the fight. The turtles are also susceptible to fungal infections. The main danger is pneumonia—about 20 percent of the turtles have it when they arrive, and perhaps 25 percent will contract it here.

The biologists have learned it’s best to warm the turtles by about five degrees a day. After each turtle is examined, it is tucked into a square, temperature-controlled contraption that is basically a turtle refrigerator. The temperature is set near the turtle’s core body temperature and turned up slightly each day.

At the clinic, a turtle with a body temperature in the 60s is plopped into a waist-high water tank to see how it swims. A volunteer watches to see if it’s strong enough to lift its head to breathe. It does, but just barely.

The blood-test results begin to come in from the lab equipment on the other side of the clinic. Most of the turtles are hypoglycemic, a sign that they are starving, and their electrolytes are out of balance, indicating that they are dehydrated. They will be injected with fluids and antibiotics for days, even months in some cases.

The turtle beaching season ends in January; after the water temperature drops to about 40 degrees, nearly all the turtles that wash in are dead. This year volunteers found 200 turtles, the third highest catch. Eighty-five were alive and sent to the aquarium. The staff named the turtles after parks in the United States. The one I found got named Voyageurs, after a national park in northern Minnesota.

The aquarium needed to make room for new arrivals, so it shipped out the turtles that were strong enough to travel. Voyageurs and 16 other survivors were sent to the University of New England in Maine. Three went to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, four to the Woods Hole Aquarium in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and three to the Riverhead Foundation on Long Island. The rest, 33 Kemp’s ridleys and the three greens, stayed in Boston.


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