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Cape's Sea Turtle Rescue Season Sets New Records

The number of cold-stunned turtles rescued this year from Cape Cod beaches has already reached an all-time high. 


More than 720 critically endangered Kemp’s ridley and threatened loggerhead turtles have received care at the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Quincy and the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay since early last month. 

The old record for turtles brought in for care was set in 2014, when 692 live turtles were admitted


Connie Merigo, the marine animal rescue department manager at the New England Aquarium, said newly admitted turtles receive x-rays, antibiotics, and replacement fluids, and are treated for pneumonia, dehydration, broken bones, and even organ failure.


“So there's a lot happening,” she said, “especially in the first few days where we're stabilizing these animals, getting their electrolytes back into balance, discovering what other ailments they have, and warming them slowly.”


Cold-stunning and stranding typically occurs when sea turtles foraging along the New England coast during the summer become trapped in Cape Cod Bay in the fall. As water and air temperatures drop between November and January, turtles become hypothermic, stop swimming, and get stuck on the north side of Cape Cod. Eventually, some wash ashore in moderate to strong winds, where beach walkers and volunteers with Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary often discover them. 


Bob Prescott, who oversees Mass Audubon’s sea turtle rescue program, says while it’s not clear what causes a big stranding year, it may be tied to strong winds and warming waters to the north.


“The Gulf of Maine is warming much faster than the global average,” he said, which has likely allowed more turtles to funnel into Cape Cod Bay from the northern Gulf Stream over the summer.


At least 75 percent of cold-stunned turtles admitted to the Aquarium are expected to be released back into the wild with a clean bill of health. 


“Some of these turtles come in and they're too sick for us to save. So there will be some number of turtles that don't make it,” Merigo said. “But for the majority of the turtles that are coming in, the rehab so far is going really well.”


For the survivors, the road to recovery will be long, but worthwhile, Merigo said.  


“It's been such a stressful year, that to be part of this team, saving so many of these endangered turtles that literally would otherwise die,” she said, “it feels good. It feels good to have something positive in our world right now.” 


Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.