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GOING HOME: Cold-stunned Sea Turtles Return to the Ocean

Green sea turtle.  Photo credit: National Aquarium

“We are excited to be releasing seven Kemp’s ridley turtles back to the wild. Seeing these beautiful animals healthy and ready to return to their ocean home makes all the hard work of rehabilitation worthwhile. The National Marine Life Center is honored to work alongside NOAA and our partners in the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network to help these critically endangered reptiles.” Kathy Zagzebski, President & Executive Director, National Marine Life Center

Taking blood on a cold-stunned sea turtle #37 when it first arrives.  Photo credit: National Marine Life Center

Taking blood prior to release of healthy sea turtle #37. Photo credit: National Marine Life Center.

Each fall, sea turtles in the Greater Atlantic Region (Maine to Virginia) strand due to cold stunning, a condition similar to hypothermia in people. Cold stunning occurs if turtles do not move south before water temperatures in the area drop.  Luckily, there are dedicated organizations and agencies that respond to stranded sea turtles and, when necessary, provide medical care in rehabilitation facilities. 

NOAA Fisheries coordinates these groups through its Greater Atlantic Region Sea Turtle Stranding Network.  Network organizations work to minimize pain and suffering of live turtles and treat their symptoms with the ultimate goal of releasing them back into the wild.  The network also collects a great deal of information about stranded sea turtles, helping us better manage these populations. 

Last fall (late October through December), the Network responded to 258 cold-stunned sea turtles.  Eighty percent of these turtles were found in Massachusetts, a hot spot for cold-stunned strandings likely due to the geography of Cape Cod.  Throughout the region, 106 sea turtles stranded alive.  They were rescued by responders and brought into rehabilitation facilities.  Since their rescue, these turtles have been recovering from a range of problems including pneumonia and other infections, malnourishment, impaired organ function, and injuries. 

After months of receiving medical care, the time has come for some of these turtles to go back to sea where they belong!  Three rehabilitation facilities, the National Marine Life Center, the National Aquarium, and the New England Aquarium, are releasing some of the animals in their care.  Their staffs will be travelling south in vans with the sea turtles, destined for the white sand beaches of Atlantic Florida.  The National Marine Life Center is releasing 7 turtles, the National Aquarium 13 turtles, and the New England Aquarium 33 turtles. 

All except one of these turtles stranded in Massachusetts and were rescued by the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.  These turtles were brought to the New England Aquarium for assessment and initial medical care.  Once stabilized, some turtles were moved to other long term treatment facilities, including the National Marine Life Center and the National Aquarium.  One green sea turtle stranded in Maryland and was rescued and treated by the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

To begin their journey, the turtles are placed in transport boxes to prevent injuries.  The vans that are used to move the animals are heated to a “turtle comfortable” 70 °F.  With transport permits in place, the first of these caravans heads south this week.  By April 22nd, all 53 turtles will again be swimming in the ocean, finding their own food, and someday hopefully becoming part of the reproductive population.    

This success is only possible through the tireless efforts of all the organizations involved, from the beach through the release site in Florida.  Most of these organizations are non-profits that rely on public donations and volunteer support.  Find out more about the organizations involved in the Network and how you may be able to help at: https://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/prot_res/stranding/ContactList.html.

Check out National Marine Life Center blog on their recent release.