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Rescuers see a spike in cold-stunned sea turtles stranded in Cape Cod Bay

About 120 local sea turtles are being treated for life-threatening conditions like pneumonia and dehydration after a slow start to the turtle stranding season.

The New England Aquarium said it's rescued 119 cold-stunned sea turtles in recent weeks. Courtesy

The New England Aquarium is treating a slew of hypothermic sea turtles rescued from Cape Cod’s chilly waters, with some needing urgent care for life-threatening conditions like pneumonia and dehydration.

Higher than usual autumn temperatures led more turtles to remain in the hook-like bay until winter, causing a delay in the usual stranding season and a spike in the number of distressed sea turtles. Once trapped, the stunned turtles suffer in the icy water for days or even weeks, unable to feed.

The aquarium said 341 sea turtles were rescued in recent weeks.  

A joint effort of rescue and animal health staff is now working to transport and rehabilitate the sea turtles, which include more than a hundred critically endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles, eight green turtles, and two loggerheads.

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“After months of planning and preparation, our team has mobilized quickly to triage these animals as temperatures dip in Cape Cod Bay and lead to more and more strandings,” said Adam Kennedy, the manager of Rescue and Rehabilitation at the Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy.

Hundred of cold-stunned sea turtles wash up on the Cape’s beaches each year. Rapidly changing water temperature and wind patterns in the bay trap the turtles, who quickly become hypothermic as winter chills the water.

Each October, staff and volunteers from Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary search for distressed turtles then transport them to the aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital. 

The 2021 turtle-stranding season started late due to temperature spikes and dips that kept the bay warm, with the first few turtles admitted to the Sea Turtle Hospital on Nov. 17.

On Nov. 27 alone, 41 turtles were taken to the aquarium’s facility for care. Two of the more unusual cases include a loggerhead and a 20-pound green turtle.

“Early in the season, we typically see the smaller Kemp’s ridley and green turtles. The larger loggerhead turtles will start to wash ashore in December, though we saw our first loggerhead of the season on Thanksgiving Day. Every case is unique, and each turtle receives specific care based on its condition,” said Dr. Charles Innis, the director of Animal Health at the Aquarium.

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Hospitalized turtles are managed similarly to hospitalized humans — they get an ID number, a medical record, and thorough physical exams, including bloodwork, X-rays, and heart and respiratory assessments. The severely ill turtles require weeks or even months of treatment, including fluid therapy and antibiotics.

Once stabilized, vets clear the turtles to travel to a secondary rehab. The Aquarium works closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Service to find centers across the country to help the Massachusetts turtles.

The nonprofit organization Turtles Fly Too plays a key role in transporting the turtles to these facilities. Volunteer pilots recently flew more than 40 turtles to the National Marine Life Center south, where they will continue rehabilitation before being released back into the ocean. 

The aquarium has partnered with the South Carolina Aquarium, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, North Carolina Aquariums, and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center to help with its turtle-saving endeavor. 

Supporters interested in donating to the turtle rescues can do so through the aquarium’s website.

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