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Sea Turtle Rescuers Honored at Fenway

JULY 6 Update: The New England Aquarium's rescue team was honored at Fenway Park in Boston on July 3. Read their blog post and see some pictures from the event.

Saving Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles

Every November, small, dark disc-shaped forms start washing ashore on Cape Cod Bay beaches. Volunteers from Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary walk the beaches, keeping a sharp lookout for these discs, which are actually “cold-stunned” sea turtles.

Mass Audubon volunteer collecting a Kemp's ridley from the beach (Esther Horvath)

These turtles come up to northeast waters in the summer and get trapped in the elbow of the Cape’s arm. As the water cools in the fall, these cold-blooded reptiles experience a hypothermic reaction to the cold water temperatures; they have slow breathing and heart rates, are lethargic, thin, and oftentimes sick with pneumonia. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if a turtle is alive or dead.  

From 2009 to 2013, Mass Audubon volunteers found an average of 243 cold-stunned sea turtles each season. This year blew that statistic out of the water: 1242 stranded, of which 746 were alive. The majority were Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, but there were also green and loggerhead sea turtles, all of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Volunteers brought the turtles back to Mass Audubon, where staff checked for signs of life and evaluated the turtles, placing each one in its own banana box for travel to the New England Aquarium, a NOAA Fisheries Sea Turtle Stranding Network member.  

Why a Banana Box?

Mass Audubon has been using banana boxes for years. Throughout the year, they stockpile boxes donated by local grocery stores. Banana boxes are free, the right size, have plenty of air holes, and don’t need to be returned when a turtle is transported to another facility. 

The opening on the top of the box makes it easy to see the ID numbers painted on the turtles’ shells. They also are sturdy, stackable, and are easy to pack into a truck or a plane, since they’re all the same size.

(© David M Barron/oxygengroup)


Packed entryway at Mass Audubon, where cold-stunned turtles await assessment (MA Audubon at Wellfleet Bay) 

At the Aquarium's Animal Care Center in Quincy, MA, staff did initial assessments and started treatment. Cold-stunned sea turtles need to be warmed gradually, a process that can take days. They are also treated for dehydration, malnutrition, metabolic problems, infections, and any injuries. Volunteers spend hours with the turtles, helping them with supervised swims and trying to get them to eat.  

Although both Mass Audubon and the Aquarium are experienced responders, neither organization was ready for the deluge of turtles. In one week, they went from 60 patients to 600. Other stranding network members sent skilled animal care staff to help care for these patients. The Aquarium admitted 692 live turtles, all in all.

Sea Turtle rehabilitation facilities throughout the East and Gulf coasts rallied to find space to treat the turtles. Kate Sampson, NOAA Fisheries’ Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator for the Greater Atlantic Region, was faced with challenge of getting turtles to facilities as far away as Texas and Florida.

The New England Aquarium Animal Care Center filled with cold-stunned sea turtles undergoing rehabilitation (NOAA Fisheries)

 That’s where the general aviation community came in: private pilots donated their own planes, fuel, and time to fly these recovering turtles around the country. The U.S. Coast Guard also flew two large transports of turtles to Florida and Mississippi, where they were then met by smaller planes or vehicles for transport to their final destinations.

For Sampson, this meant many hours on the phone acting as a turtle travel agent, putting together itineraries for her clients in banana boxes. The voice on the other end of the phone was most often Leslie Weinstein, a volunteer with both the general aviation and sea turtle conservation communities, who brought the two groups together. 

“It was an amazing collaborative effort involving so many staff and volunteers from the standing network, the general aviation community, and our state and federal partners,” says Sampson.  “I hope we don’t have to do it again, but if we do, we have incredible community support.”

Of the original 692 turtles admitted for treatment, 564 were transferred to other facilities, leaving the Aquarium to care for 128 of the sickest patients. So far, 404 of the stranded turtles have been released back into the ocean—many off the coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas. Another 139 are still being rehabilitated, but we hope to have the vast majority back in the water by the end of summer.

“This was a huge success,” says Sampson. “We returned hundreds of threatened and endangered turtles to the wild that otherwise would have died.  It could not have been done without the generosity and hard work of hundreds of people from around the country.”

(Credit: NOAA Fisheries)

It took a village – thanks to all these organizations for providing care, staffing, facilities, and transportation.

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas


Florida Aquarium

General Aviation Community

Georgia Sea Turtle Center 

Gulf World Marine Park

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center 

International Fund for Animal Welfare

Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center

Loggerhead Marinelife Center 

Miami Seaquarium

Mystic Aquarium

National Aquarium

National Marine Life Center

NOAA Galveston Lab

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Sea World Orlando

Seacoast Science Center 

South Carolina Aquarium

The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies 

The Turtle Hospital 

U.S. Coast Guard

Virginia Aquarium 

Woods Hole Science Aquarium