52 Cold-Stunned Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles Rescued From Cape Cod

The critically endangered creatures were flown by private plane to rehabilitation centers in Florida

Turtle in a medical setting
More than 200 cold-stunned turtles have already been rescued since November. New England Aquarium

Every fall, as temperatures begin to drop in the Northeast and the Atlantic Ocean gets chillier, sea turtles instinctively head south toward warmer waters. But each year, a few of the cold-blooded reptiles get stuck in Cape Cod Bay, stymied by the long, curving arm of the Cape Cod peninsula. As their body temperatures drop, the reptiles become weak and inactive, a condition known as “cold-stunning.” Without intervention, many of them eventually die.

Last week, however, 52 cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley sea turtles got a second chance when they were rescued and flown on a private plane from Massachusetts to Florida, reports the Associated Press.

Turtles in bins
The turtles were flown to rehabilitation facilities in Florida, where they'll receive treatment and, conservationists hope, grow healthy enough to be released into the ocean. Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Veterinarians at four sea turtle rehabilitation facilities in the state are now helping the critically endangered animals warm up and recover: the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach and the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota.

The turtles may not all survive. But with an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 nesting females left in the wild, the species needs all the help it can get.

“This is a regular occurrence each winter, and we’ve participated in the continued care of these turtles since 2016,” says Shelly Marquardt, Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s veterinarian, in a statement. “We know that their time in rehabilitation here makes a difference for the future of this endangered species, and we are proud to be able to contribute to their conservation efforts.”

The creatures were able to hitch a ride on a private plane thanks to a nonprofit organization called Turtles Fly Too. The group works with volunteer pilots who share their time and their planes to help transport sea turtles in need.

Turtles become cold-stunned in Cape Cod every year. This time, they began to wash ashore in early November, which is a bit later than usual, according to a statement from the New England Aquarium. So far this year, staff at the aquarium’s sea turtle hospital have treated 214 total sea turtles, a number that includes 189 Kemp’s ridleys, 19 green turtles and six loggerheads. In addition to the turtles flown to Florida, some have also been taken to facilities in North Carolina and Baltimore.

The animals typically spend the first three days in recovery warming up, reports the New York Times’ Derrick Bryson Taylor. From there, veterinarians can begin to help them overcome other cold-related issues, like pneumonia, dehydration and fractured shells.

Turtle being checked out by veterinarian
This year, cold-stunned turtles began washing ashore a little later than normal, in early November. New England Aquaruim

Because the turtles aren’t able to eat when they’re cold-stunned, veterinarians also prepare them a special diet to help them rebound. Herring and squid are often on the menu, reports WGBH’s Craig LeMoult.

“We’ll cut it into filets because the turtles right now aren’t eating any hard parts,” Emily Davis, an intern at the New England Aquarium, tells WGBH.

On average, the aquarium rescues and treats roughly 400 cold-stunned sea turtles each year. Roughly 70 to 80 percent of them survive, but those are still much better odds than the cold-stunned turtles that don’t get washed ashore and taken into care.

“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,” says Adam Kennedy, the New England Aquarium’s director of rescue and rehabilitation, to the New York Times. “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.”

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