Sea Turtles Vacation in Martha’s Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard is a great place to visit this time of year. A picturesque summer time jewel nestled just offshore of Cape Cod, “The Vineyard” is home to countless boutiques, restaurants, and enough ice cream shops to satisfy all tastes. Martha’s Vineyard is also known for its beautiful shoreline and beaches. This past Tuesday, the New England Aquarium Rescue team, along with a handful of dedicated volunteers and a long list of special guests, paid a visit to The Trustees of Reservations Long Point Wildlife Refuge for a unique occasion.




The turtles being released were two Kemp’s ridley sea turtles; Frank Hardy (# 164) and Benton Wesley (#197). These turtles cold-stunned last winter, were rehabilitated at our Quincy animal care center, and now are ready for the waters of the Atlantic!

There was a great number of people and visitors at the release site, all eager to see these two turtles released back into the wild.Volunteers Maury Weinrobe and Mike O’Neill show off these stunning turtles to the crowd, and take a special moment to share these turtles with the Camp Jabberwocky folks.

There was a great feeling of excitement in the air, and everyone was curious about the antennas on their shells. If you haven’t noticed from the pictures, these two turtles were equipped with satellite tags! We are very interested in where the turtles go once they are released, and their progress can be tracked at www.seaturtle.org. Follow the link "Track a sea turtle" and search for New England Aquarium.

With the help of the Trustees of Reservations and Camp Jabberwocky, the Rescue team was able to release Frank Hardy( # 164) and Benton Wesley (#197) back into the wild. Long Point Wildlife Refuge provided a perfect backdrop and location to kickoff their journey homeward.

So a BIG THANKS goes out to the Trustees of Reservations for providing a great release site. BIG THANKS also to Camp Jabberwocky for bringing out all their summertime campers. It was great fun having everyone out, and we hope you enjoyed it as much as all of us!



Turtle Release - Special Patients Return Home

The majority of our turtle patients that weren't quite ready to join in the Sea Turtle Trek are ready for release now!  After a record year of turtle strandings from the fall of 2012 and many, many months of intensive medical treatments, a batch of Kemp's ridley turtles were released into the ocean last week.  A group of the Rescue Team, volunteers and staff, drove down to Long Island, New York for this special occasion with the assistance of the Riverhead Foundation and Cross Sound Ferry.  Some very special patients were on this trip, so enjoy their updates and amazing progress!

Last week, a group of the Rescue Team, including volunteers and staff, drove down to Long Island, New York for a special release. 

The Cross Sound Ferry was supportive in facilitating our vehicles and passengers, including our special cargo of endangered sea turtles, for our safe passage to Long Island.  

Once in New York, we drove over to the southern side to release the turtles into the Atlantic Ocean, where the temperature was perfect and there was no risk of them getting 'stuck' in Long Island Sound where cold stunning also occurs.  Staff from the Riverhead Foundation lent their support by coordinating with the beach in Hampton Bays, NY for a release site and spending their valuable time with us making sure everything went smoothly. 

Six turtles were released.  Above, selected animal health department staff and rescue volunteers who spent countless hours caring for these turtles prepare for release.  I love the smiles on their faces!  And the turtles flapping their flippers in anticipation of an ocean return.


Above, a few of the turtles race down the beach.  #169, last turtle in the back right, was a special case in that he had a former injury of a broken femur.  There was limited movement of the flipper and radiographs showed a likely fracture.  A CT scan confirmed that this was an old and already healed fracture that did not require any treatment from us.  It is amazing how well wild animals can heal on their own.  He did have many abrasions and necrotic areas of his head and carapace that required extra care throughout his cold stun treatment.  None of this stopped him from being the first turtle in the water!

Guess who else was released?  After a miraculous recovery, #25 'Rizzoli' was healthy again!  He began his journey with us on a ventilator and in extremely critical condition.  You can read about his comeback here.

#25 was a fighter!  He ended up being one of the few ridleys that had to be placed on a diet and even though he was the smallest turtle in our care at the end, he had the biggest personality.  It was an honor watching him go back into the water.

#66 was another interesting patient.  He developed flipper lameness and joint swellings that required us to use some alternative treatments such as laser therapy (pictured above,) and acupuncture.

But that lameness and swelling resolved as a result of antibiotics, pain management, physical therapy and the treatments mentioned above and he also joined in this release.  This is a great shot just before he enters the water.

The release team!  We couldn't have taken care of so many turtles this year without all these people.  And these folks represent just a fraction of the total effort.  Thank you to all the volunteers and staff from other departments and organizations (including Julika from the Riverhead Foundation above in red).

Releases are an exciting time for all involved.  We still have 7 more turtles in our care, most of which will be released soon as well.  This group will have satellite tags applied to their carapaces in addition to the normal tagging we do.  We'll let you know how that release goes and how to track those satellite tagged turtles!



Save the SEAL | Flipper Concerns

It is natural for seals to be in the New England area, and people want to help. This post is part of a series we’re calling Save the SEAL, in which we hope to address the most common questions and concerns we hear from people calling our marine animal hotline (617-973-5247). Learn what SEAL stands for in this previous post.  
Warning: There are pictures of wounded seals in this blog!

One concern that is voiced on the majority of calls to our hotline is “the flipper is broken”, “it can’t use the flipper” or “there is something wrong with its flipper because it won’t use it”. Today we will address those questions.

As most of you know from previous posts it is perfectly normal for seals to be out of the water and on land. However, unlike sea lions or fur seals (both found in the Pacific and at the marine mammal center at the Aquarium) the true seals (family: Phocidae) are unable to rotate their hips and “walk” on land. So the Atlantic seals look very awkward on land as they amble about.
One of the NEAq fur seals. Easily "walks" around on all four flippers. The only place to find these seals on the east coast is at Aquariums.
Here you can see a Gray seal lumbering up the beach. Not the most graceful of animals when they are out of the water.
One thing we do see a lot of is the lack of use of one of the front flippers. While we are not sure why these seals do this, we see it often enough to realize it is behavioral. In the Aquarium’s history, we have cared for hundreds of seals with clinical problems other than broken flippers that have displayed this behavior while in rehab.

Most seals we see on the beach require only a close-up visual exam. Here is what we look for when examining a flipper in particular:  

Are there any obvious lacerations or deep puncture wounds on or near the flipper?
The seal above has an obvious wound. This was a propeller strike. Not every injury is as obvious though.
Is there lack of uniformity between the flippers, that is to say swelling of the flipper that is reported not being used?
A good looking seal. Front flippers are uniform in size and shape. We monitored the seal while it was on shore. The seal scurried back into the water on the next high tide.
Another seal where both flippers are uniform shape and size. Multiple reports were sent in by concerned citizens of a broken flipper. Trained visual assessment suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, this seal had to be relocated due to human harassment. However, since we had to move the seal anyway, physical exam proved both flippers were fine.

Here you can see the awkward movement on land. But, what you might not notice is the front right flipper of this seal was swollen. This gray seal was brought to the University of New England for rehab.

Just as we tell all of you, after we do a close-up inspection of the seal and find no reason to intervene, we will back off and let it get the rest it needs while on the beach.

The above pictures show our department in the field educating and assessing a seal on the beach. The bottom picture shows the seal with plenty of room to do its own thing on its own time.
These are wild animals and we would be putting undue stress on the vast majority of them if we had to physically restrain every seal to look at their front flippers. If our visual inspections finds something wrong with the flipper or something else clinically wrong, then and only then will we do a physical exam, which requires the removal of the seal from the beach. This is extremely stressful on the seal. This is why we only do this on animals that appear to have some clinical problem.

We will palpate both flippers…
In order to get a good feel of the flipper it takes multiple people to restrain even a small seal. Above we are palpating the shoulder and flipper. Very stressful.

Another possible prop strike seal. Here we are palpating the flipper, ribs, and abdominal region to check for possible internal injuries.

and the rehab facility will take radiographs.
Above you can see a normal front flipper radiograph.
I have been doing this for quite a while now and can thankfully only recount a handful of truly broken or infected front flippers.

Stay tuned for more seal information.


(Oh and by the way… turtle release today!)


Save the SEAL - a blog series

It is natural for seals to be in the New England area, and every year we get calls with the same concerns or reactions.  We are starting this blog series entitled 'Save' the SEAL to address the most common statements we hear from the caller.  Before we begin, I want to provide some general information to keep in mind when you see a seal on the beach.  Using a helpful reminder created by a Rescue team volunteer, Mike O'Neill, let's begin!

A gray seal rests on a beach.  They may look awkward on land, but it is a completely natural behavior.

Survey the area by making observations and taking photos from a distance.  Seals are semi-aquatic and are just as comfortable on land as they are in the water.  There is no need to push them back in or approach in any way.  They are wild animals that should be appreciated from a distance. Feel free to take photos, but stay 150 feet away if possible.  Do not jump to conclusions since it is natural for a seal to be on land in this area.

This harbor seal pup was a recent case on the south shore.  People assumed it needed help, and even suggested it was attacked by a shark, when it was actually in decent condition and showing the typical observations we see for a pup, such as being underweight, minor abrasions, and lacking fear of people.  Pups especially may haul out on unusual beaches or act strangely in the water as they learn the best spots to rest and experiment with different behaviors.

Educate on-lookers.  Explain that it is normal for seals to be on land to the people around you!  Now that you know the information, the best way to spread the word is to educate.  No matter how many signs or flyers we hand out, word of mouth is always the best.  You can also help keep a safe distance from the seal which is the best supportive care you can provide for the animal.

Establishing a perimeter a safe distance from the seal is best.  Share the information with fellow beach goers because they probably just don't know the normal behavior of a seal.  Now that you do, you can help spread the word and keep the wildlife wild!

Alert the experts.  If you see a live or dead seal on the beach, call the NEAQ hotline at 617-973-5247.  We are always available by phone, and depending on the situation, we will either respond to an animal ourselves or send one of our highly trained and experienced field volunteers to the scene.  Field volunteers act as our first responders by assessing from a distance, gathering documentation through photos to report back to staff, and educating the public.  They are trained in what to look for such as proper behavior, significance of wounds, and general safety for the animal.

We always try to get a field volunteer to assess an animal as quickly as possible.  If the animal appears healthy or in decent condition, we will leave it on the beach to rest naturally and monitor periodically.  Usually, it is best not to intervene unless absolutely necessary.

Leave it alone.  Seals are not comforted by human presence, and even though they may not retreat from you, it does not mean it is not extremely stressed by the encounter.  Displays such as shivering, vocalizing, and waving flippers are all signs of stress.  Seals are also federally protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes it illegal to harass any marine mammal.  Harassment can be defined as anything that will alter the natural behavior, so if a seal is sleeping on the beach, and you approach so that it looks at you, you have altered it's sleeping behavior and technically harassing the animal.  The best guideline is to stay 150 feet away according to these federal regulations.

This harp seal is not waving 'hi', someone must be approaching or making noise.  This behavior is a sign of stress and it is our cue to back away.  Physiological stress can cause a severe decline in health very quickly.

Seals also carry zoonotic diseases, which are pathogens that can be transferred from the seal (including carcasses) to humans or dogs.  Seals can also bite, and the natural bacteria in their mouths can cause severe infections so it is best to keep distance from the seal for you and your pets safety as well.  
We hope this information is useful when you are out on the beach.  Some of the typical comments we get such as "it's a baby and all alone", "it can't get back in the water", or "it was attacked by a shark" and much more will be addressed in blogs to come so remember to follow this series.  In the meantime, remember our hotline # is 617-973-5247 and if you care, leave it there!