Making room: Some sea turtle patients being transferred

This is a media release cross-posted from the Aquarium's News Blog. Find out how you can support the Aquarium and their efforts to rescue and protect endangered animals here.

With more than 100 rescued sea turtles in care at the Aquarium's Animal Care Center, the rescue team is transferring 18 stable animals all over the East Coast to make room for the ever-growing number of cold-stunned sea turtle patients.

The mass stranding of hypothermic sea turtles on Cape Cod reached a new peak Thursday as 22 more of the endangered and threatened marine reptiles were collected by Massachusetts Audubon staff and volunteers and transferred to the New England Aquarium's rescue facilities in Quincy. Since Monday, 67 animals of three different turtle species have been found stranded on Cape Cod Bay beaches with body temperatures in the mid to high 40's.

The treatment room at the New England Aquarium's turtle hospital in Quincy bustles with activity as new cold-stunned sea turtles continue to arrive. Photo: L. Bornhofft/New England Aquarium

The mass wash-up of cold stunned sea turtles on this scale is believed to happen no where else in the world. Sick sea turtles do strand each November and December on Cape Cod. The Aquarium's record for treating sea turtles that arrive still alive is 144. Yesterday's 22 new patients pushed this season's total to 107 animals received, and Aquarium officials think that might just be at the half-way point.

Compounding the massive volume and pace of the strandings is a new phenomenon of a record number of large loggerhead sea turtles arriving. Usually, 90 percent of the sea turtles that strand are 2 to 12 pound juvenile Kemp's ridleys. On Wednesday and Thursday, eleven 50 to 100 pound loggerheads arrived. In a normal year, the Aquarium might handle four or five of the husky, chestnut brown turtles in an entire season. The big turtles quickly fill tank space in the Aquarium's state of the art rescue facility which is optimally designed to handle about 100 smaller turtles.

This loggerhead sea turtle was among seven that were rescued in a 24 hour period from November 27 to November 28. That many loggerheads is more than usually are seen in an entire two month stranding season.

To make space for more incoming turtles, the Aquarium has been reaching out to fellow marine animal rescue facilities and aquariums up and down the East Coast. Thursday, eight re-warmed and stable Kemp's were driven to the National Marine Life Center on Cape Cod. Friday, four more Kemp's will be flown out of Norwood to the Virginia Aquarium on a donated flight from Lighthawk, which is a network of private pilots that help move endangered wildlife around the U.S.

Also Friday, six big loggerheads will be transported to the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. Later this week, Worcester-based Polar Beverages will fly more sea turtles to Maryland and Georgia. The Aquarium is grateful for both the generosity and expertise of these partners in helping save endangered sea turtles.

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Rescue Season Ramping Up

This is a media release cross-posted from the Aquarium's News Blog
Support the Aquarium and their rescue efforts here

Over the last few days, more than 45 endangered sea turtles of three different species have washed up on the shores of Massachusetts' Cape Cod Bay near death with body temperatures in the high 40's. Most people don't think of sea turtles being in New England waters even in the summertime so much as just weeks before the winter holidays.

Dr. Charles Innis, the Aquarium's head veterinarian and a renowned turtle specialist, listens for a heartbeat on a newly admitted 60-pound, sub-adult loggerhead sea turtle. Turtles with temperature in the low to mid 40's can come in with a heartbeat as low as one per minute and still be re-warmed. Reptiles are tough and amazing. 

Wednesday with winds blowing steadily out the northeast, the wave activity carried these mostly inert turtles on to the beaches of this beautiful but sometimes deadly peninsula. The juvenile two to ten pound Kemp's ridley and green sea turtles and the 40 to 70 pound sub-adult loggerheads migrated up the East Coast early last summer to feed mostly on crabs in these rich, marine waters. In September, the instinct to swim south was most likely clear but once on the north side of Cape Cod, these young turtles were not able to solve the difficult navigation problem of getting out of the deadly bucket of Cape Cod Bay. Swimming south, east or west leads to land barriers. Swimming in the counter-intuitive direction of north for 20 miles is the only safe passage out before turning south at the tip of Cape Cod.

A juvenile green sea turtle on medical intake on November 28. Note the fungus and build-up of materials on the shell due to lack of activity.

For those sea turtles that fail to do so, they slowly become hypothermic over two months as water temperatures steadily decline through the autumn. By November, the remaining turtles are near death with low body temperatures but are also usually severely dehydrated, malnourished and host to a variety of infections. If they are lucky, the first steady, strong winds of the winter push their inactive bodies ashore, mostly on the Outer Cape. There, dedicated staff and volunteers of the Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay walk the beaches in often brutal weather conditions to find the stranded reptiles. It is a life and death game of beat he clock as rescuers try to find the sea turtles before scavengers such as coyotes, raccoons or sea gulls do.

This loggerhead sea turtle was among seven that were rescued in a 24 hour period from November 27 to November 28. That many loggerheads is more than usually are seen in an entire two month stranding season.

Turtles once found are collected and brought to the sanctuary headquarters. Four times on Wednesday, volunteer drivers left Wellfleet to drive the 90 miles to the New England Aquarium's state of the art sea turtle rehabilitation facility in a retrofitted, brick warehouse in the old Quincy Shipyard, ten miles south of Boston. There, Aquarium biologists, veterinarians and volunteers quickly and efficiently triaged, cleaned and treated the new patients. It was not unlike a scene out of a big city ER. The 45 new patients over the past three days are each being slowly re-warmed five degrees per day. They were greeted by about 45 other sea turtles that had stranded since early November were now busily swimming in the rehab's center large clear tanks.

With over 90 turtles rescued and several weeks remaining in the stranding season, Aquarium officials believe that this year might rank in the top three ever. What has made this year even more unusual is the large number of 50 to 70 pound loggerhead sea turtles stranding. Most years, the Aquarium treats a handful of the husky, chestnut brown colored turtles. In the past 24 hours, seven loggerheads have already been rescued. The large turtles strain the available tank space in a facility that is designed to care for about 100 sea turtles. Plans are already underway to move some of the healthier animals to other sea turtle facilities, particularly in the South. The Aquarium is seeking the services of volunteer pilots with their own planes who might have room for some unusual and precious cargo for flights to Virginia, Georgia and Florida.

The Aquarium and Mass Audubon have rescued, rehabilitated and released over 1000 endangered sea turtles in the past twenty years. Private donations have been key to sustaining this effort that has been making a tangible difference in the recovery of the world's most endangered sea turtle. Find out how you can support sea turtle rescue efforts here.

Follow the our blog for the latest on this busy season. Watch video of previous sea turtle patients in treatment here.  See how dedicated rescue staff and volunteers celebrate holidays. And look for media coverage about this season's more recent sea turtle rescues here, here, here and here.


What Turtles Are Thankful For

What are you thankful for?  Every year, Thanksgiving reminds us of the things we should be thankful for in our lives.  This got me thinking about the sea turtles at the aquarium.  Here is my opinion on how the cold-stunned turtles at the Animal Care Center might answer that question...

Thankful for a lifeguard. (Above, volunteer Mike supervises several turtles in their kiddie pool swims.)

Thankful for clean towels to rest on and recover (and the dent in laundry done today).  (Above, intern Maggie and volunteer Teresa work hard to keep up with massive amounts of laundry.)

Thankful for being in good hands.  (Fantastic rescue volunteers Alfredo and Maggie restrain the turtles for their treatment.)

Thankful for the many antibiotics and vitamin supplements to get healthy again.  (The above photo shows Katie Pugliares, senior biologist, preparing medications for the day.)

Thankful for a good meal (even if still eating off tongs).  (Volunteer Sarah is about to offer some squid to a turtle in the above photo.)

Thankful for the amazing Animal Health Department and their medical expertise.  (In this photo, biologist Tina Wilkins of the Health Department strikes a pose as she processes blood work.)

Thankful for veterinarians who prescribe the best treatment for recovery.  (The above photo shows fluids being given to a turtle, which is determined by the veterinarian's analysis of blood work and exam.)

Thankful for MassAudubon Wellfleet Bay for working around the clock to find and safely bring in new patients, including 6 Kemp's ridley sea turtles today (see above photo of their arrival).

Thankful for the Animal Rescue Team, the amazing volunteers and staff who spend their time helping an endangered species. (The photo above is the 2012 Thanksgiving Rescue Team.)

And I am thankful to be a part of all of the above and for being able to spend a great Thanksgiving with my family away from home. (Above, some of the volunteers and staff sit down for our 2nd annual Quincy Thanksgiving.)

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!



Scenes of Turtle Season

It looks like turtle season is really starting to take off.  We've been having a steady trickle of turtles strand on the beaches of Cape Cod, ranging from Sandwich to Brewster lately.  Do you ever wonder what happens to the turtles once the great volunteers of MassAudubon in Wellflleet deliver them to the Animal Care Center?  Here is a breakdown of what the first week is usually like in pictures.  

We always start with an intake exam which includes heart rate, blood work, full eye and physical exam, and fluids.

In past posts we've mentioned the kiddie pool swims. Once they are more stable and strong enough they will be placed in the larger tanks and start to be offered food. The above photo shows one group of turtles adjusting to their new tank.

In the first week, most turtles receive blood work every day. We monitor their blood gases almost daily and provide fluids and/or medications to assist in correcting any abnormal blood values. Above, Adam talks over the blood results and receives fluid plans from the veterinarian on duty.

The turtles not ready for the larger tanks yet still get swum in kiddie pools at the correct temperature, just like the one above that our volunteer Carla is monitoring. We take notes on their behavior and respirations in the kiddie pool to determine when they are ready for the next step.

Above is #34, a Kemp's ridley turtle who came in in critical condition. We were able to stabilize him and he is doing well now. In the photo you can see a large scab on his left eye. It is not unusual to see eye injuries from the turtles washing around in the surf into rocks or being accessible to scavengers. This turtle is on an eye medication every day to help that wound heal. We already have a couple other turtles with similar eye injuries and are on daily eye antibiotics.

Most of the turtles we see are very thin, but sometimes they can be extremely underweight as in #28 above. You can see in this photo how sunken his plastron is. This turtle has also been swimming in the large tank for several days now with no interest in food. We are spending significant amounts of time with him in order to get him to eat. We are supplementing him with fluids and injectable vitamins, but if we don't have success soon, we may have to start tube feeding. We are hoping we'll have some luck to avoid this invasive technique, but it may be necessary to get him on track.  

We also have to start saying goodbye to some turtles to make room for more incoming strandings. I mentioned our 3 flippered loggerhead sea turtle in my last post, but unfortunately we will have to say our goodbyes. The loggerhead (#23) has been doing great this past week.  He swims well in his tank, eats great, and his injury is progressing well. But a large turtle like this takes up a lot of space in our tanks, so we will be seeing him off to a new home today.  

Above, #23, our first loggerhead of the season, gets an exit exam.  He will be heading to the National Aquarium in Baltimore this week, where he will continue his rehabilitation and hopeful release.  

Do you remember Laura's guest post on the turtle she found in Dennis? Above is a photo by Laura from her rescue.  

#31 is the turtle Laura found.  I wanted to update you that he is doing great so far. He was very active when he came in and actually not very cold. He started eating the first time he was offered which is a great sign.  

And more turtles are still coming in! We are up to almost 30 turtles in our hospital now, including this turtle above. This is a green sea turtle and we got two of this species just on Saturday. We'll tell you more about these green turtles, additional happenings of the season, and some special cases that we have been seeing in posts to come.  



Guest Blog: A Thankful Moment

This is a guest post from Aquarium staffer Laura Dill. Laura works in the Development office and helps to raise money to support Aquarium programs, like the Marine Animal Rescue Program. Last fall, she expanded her mission to help marine animals to include her off-time! (Learn more about those efforts here, here and here.) Follow along below as she returns to the beaches of Cape Cod to search for cold-stunned sea turtles.

One of my favorite times of the year is when the leaves start falling and the calendar turns to November. Not only to have turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie but to spend time walking through bitter winds on the beaches of the Cape in search of stranded sea turtles.

Laura arrives at Mass. Audubon in Wellfleet. This is where rescued cold-stunned turtles get their intake exams.

Last Saturday day morning, I woke up to a warm sunny day in Brewster which is usually a sign that sea turtles will not strand. They need a combo of strong wind and wave current to catapult them on to the beach (like the nor'easter that hit soon after Sandy). The best time to walk the beach is about an hour after high tide so with high tide at 7:40am, I prepared breakfast and afterwards my sister (Elizabeth), brother-in-law (Chris) and I started putting on our rescue sea turtle gear. We never know how the ocean will welcome us to the beach so layers are the best defense. We put on the long underwear, boots, mittens and hats.

High tide line on Mayflower Beach in Dennis, a hawk scavenges for food

On this occasion we were assigned to a beach in Dennis from Mass Audubon in Wellfleet. It was a very rocky beach and at some points we were scaling rocks so the ocean wouldn’t get our feet too wet and cold. I thought with so many rocks finding a sea turtle could prove to be very difficult but we were determined. At the very end of our beach was a huge open area where a ton of seaweed and debris washed up. I saw a hawk eating something and ran up to it to see if it might be a turtle. The hawk had no desire to stop munching on his morning snack and luckily the snack was a bird that washed up. I walked the rest of the area where much of the seaweed washed up and then I saw it, a beautiful sea turtle.

Laura's sister, Elizabeth, gives you an idea of how tiny this Kemp's ridley turtle is.

The turtle was motionless but looked in perfect shape. The shell was all intact, flippers had no signs of injury and his face had no abrasions. It's so important to find them as soon as possible so predators do not get to them and they are not exposed to cold air for an extended period. We rushed him off the beach and with the sun’s heat the turtle started to show signs of life. His eyes started to open and his flippers started to move.  He was swimming in the air while we rescued him off the beach.  We then brought him to MassAudubon, careful not to warm him up too quickly as we want their internal body temperature to slowly rise.

Cold-stunned sea turtle found in Dennis

Every time I walk a beach in search of stranded turtles, I hope that if a turtle stranded that my eyes will find it. It was a very thankful moment for me to find this little Kemp’s ridley among all the rocks and seaweed.  Now this lucky sea turtle is recuperating at the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle rescue center in Quincy.

Elizabeth and her husband Chris pick up the turtle to start its rehabilitation journey.

Another thing I will be thankful for this Thanksgiving are two organizations that are giving this sea turtle his fight back to survive this crazy world, the New England Aquarium and the Massachusetts Audubon Society!

Happy Thanksgiving,
Laura M. Dill


A Winter Storm Marks the Beginning of Turtle Season 2012

Turtle Season 2012 is here! Every year turtles strand in the fall from cold stunning. This occurs when the turtles do not leave Cape Cod Bay before the water temperature drops, causing severe hypothermia. Their body basically shuts down and they wash ashore, especially when the direction of the wind blows them onto the cape. After the weather we've had this week, it's not a surprise our first patients arrived at the Animal Care Center in Quincy.  

Our first patients were brought to Quincy by a volunteer from the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Tuesday. This duo are our first cold stunned patients for the 2012 season.  

Our new patients must be monitored closely as we slowly warm them up (we increase 5 degrees F per day) and swim them in kiddy pools as they get stronger. 

The strong north east winds this week washed the weaker turtles directly onto land. We received 6 more turtles (5 Kemp's ridley turtles and 1 loggerhead sea turtle) on Thursday due to the extreme weather.

Above, one of our new patients eyes the camera during his intake exam on Thursday.  Each turtle receives a full physical exam (including heart rate, eye exam, photos, and more), blood work,  a supervised kiddy pool swim and fluids upon arrival.  

In the above photo, Dr. Charlie Innis examines a loggerhead sea turtle that was brought to the hospital on Thursday. This turtle has a severe injury and is missing his right front flipper. He is extremely alert and responsive in his kiddy pool,  and we will keep you updated on his progression.

Four more turtles arrived this afternoon! The above photo shows staff member Ulrika checking the heart rate on one of these new arrivals.  

As I was leaving for the night, our first two patient were enjoying their first day in the big tank as they were resting on the bottom together. They are getting stronger each day and will actually be offered food tomorrow!

We are extremely excited for this turtle season and we will keep you updated on the 12 turtles currently in our hospital and new ones to come. Also, the naming theme for this year is being finalized and we will be able to share that surprise with you soon! Check out this video from Thursday's events and check back soon for more info and updates on our new patients.