QUINCY — Staff and volunteers at the New England Aquarium Animal Care Center packed 28 sea turtles, all recovering from hypothermia, into padded crates and loaded them onto in three large SUVs this morning for a trip to warmer waters in Florida.
The aquarium saw a record number of hypothermic turtles this winter, said Tony LaCasse, and aquarium spokesman.
About 400 sea turtles were stranded on the Massachusetts coast during the winter. Aquarium staff and volunteers took 242 sea turtles in for treatment, breaking the previous record of 140 turtles, set in 1999, LaCasse said.
“We had days when we shipped out 17 loggerheads to other facilities and took in 20,’’ LaCasse said. “We literally had boxes of turtles back here.’’
Aquarium researchers are unsure why so many turtles were stranded in the area this winter, said Connie Merigo, the aquarium’s stranding program manager.
Merigo’s theory, she said, is that last year’s mild winter may have caused some to stay in the Gulf Stream instead of swimming into the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the reptiles en route to Florida today were endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, the smallest one weighing about 5 1/2 pounds. They were joined by two green sea turtles and seven loggerhead turtles — the largest, which has been recovering at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, clocking in at more than 100 pounds.
The caravan’s planned route follows I-95, with planned stops in Connecticut, Baltimore, Virginia, and South Carolina to pick up more turtles, most of which were stranded on Massachusetts coasts and transferred elsewhere when tanks in the aquarium’s Quincy center got crowded.
Team members will tweet their progress along the way.
They expect to arrive at a state park in Jacksonville, Fla. with nearly 50 turtles in tow Sunday morning and perform a few final blood tests on the reptiles.
Then they plan to line the turtles up 10 to 15 feet away from the water, five or 10 at a time, and watch them scurry into the sea.
“These sea turtles haven’t smelled that distinct ocean smell [in months],’’ LaCasse said. “You can literally see the first smell that registers with them.’’