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Transcript: Sea Turtles Rescued from the Cold

[Music playing]

Rich Press: Many species of sea turtles head south for the winter before the water turns cold; for those that lag behind the results can be deadly. They can get cold stunned, and since last month over 1,200 cold stunned sea turtles have washed up on beaches in the Northeast. That's the highest number on record for the region and it's more than five times the number for the average year. To make matters worse, most of them have been Kemp's Ridleys, which is considered the most endangered species of sea turtle out there.

As fast as the sea turtles have been washing up on beaches, the sea turtle stranding network has been rescuing them. The stranding network is made up of federal and state agencies, aquariums, wildlife rehabilitation centers, and other organizations that have the expertise and the required permits to handle these endangered turtles. With the help of volunteers they've been bringing the turtles in from the cold. 

To find out more about cold stunning and about why this year’s number are so big, I called Kate Sampson. Kate is the sea turtle stranding and disentanglement coordinator for NOAA Fisheries in the Northeast and I asked her to explain what happens when a turtle is stunned by the cold.

Kate Sampson: Well, cold stunning is when sea turtles, or pretty much any reptiles I would imagine—they are cold-blooded animals, which means that their body temperature is essentially the same as the surrounding water. In this area when we have the water temperature drop to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, we start to see the animals cold stunning, and that means that basically it's hypothermia in people, they just really become lethargic. They stop eating so they become thinner. Their gastrointestinal tract shuts down. They can get infections like pneumonia just because their immune system is suppressed. And they basically will become less and less active until finally they'll just strand following either wind or currents up onto land.

Rich Press: So why have we seen so many turtles washing up this year? What's going on?

Kate Sampson: Well, no one knows exactly why there's many more this year than in previous years. You know this is a natural occurrence, it's not human related. So, we do see cold stunned turtles most likely just because of the geography of the area that, you know they come into Cape Cod Bay during the summer or even in early fall and they're feeding in that area and doing just fine. And then when it's time for them to move south because the water temperatures are getting colder they sometimes can't easily find their way out of Cape Cod Bay because they have to head north in order to eventually head south. So if you have a lot of turtles in the bay in early November and all of a sudden you have a really big cold snap, you might have a lot of turtles coming up on the beach at one time. And a gradual drop might give more turtles an opportunity to leave the bay, so you know, it varies by the year. 

So what's going on this year is a little bit of a mystery. It could be that these are juveniles that are washing up, up here, and maybe there's just more juveniles out there right now because there were a couple of big nesting years. That could be a factor, but most likely there's some physical factors going on as well—currents, wind, things like that.

Rich Press: So they wash up on the beach and a volunteer finds them, then what? How do you help them out?

Kate Sampson: Well, once they're brought in to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary they're evaluated as to whether alive and dead, sometimes not an easy thing to do because they're so lethargic. Then, if it's alive or even if they think they might be alive, they send them up to the New England Aquarium. And there they will get a full exam, look for any sort of injuries, look to see what their body temperature is, evaluate their heart rate, how often they're breathing. Take some blood and look at what their blood parameters are telling them. So just really do a whole a review of the status of the turtle, how sick is it. And then once they determine that they'll start it swimming slow at first and then for longer and longer periods. And they start warming it gradually up about five degrees per day until it's back up to a temperature that is ideal for them, which is around 75 to 78 degrees.

Rich Press: So I hear that there are so many coming in this year that the New England Aquarium has to keep shipping them out in order to make room for new ones coming in. So where are they going?

Kate Sampson: Well, they've been transported out to a huge number of organizations like the National Marine Center in Buzzards Bay, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Virginia Aquarium down in Virginia, the Pittsburg Zoo—

Rich Press: It's a long list of places so let me cut in here. The turtles are being sent all over the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and they're traveling by air. Except for one plane load taken by the Coast Guard, all the flights have been provided by private companies and individual pilots who are donating their time and their fuel. The longest flight so far was to Galveston, Texas home of the NOAA Fisheries sea turtle facility. So I called the guy who runs the place. He's a biologist by the name of Ben Higgins.

[Phone ringing]

Ben Higgins: NOAA Fisheries, Ben speaking.

Rich Press: Hey Ben, this is Rich Press calling from NOAA Fisheries headquarters.

Ben Higgins: Hey Rich, how you doing?

Rich Press: I'm doing great. How are you?

Ben Higgins: Oh, hanging in there.

Rich Press: All right. So I hear that you recently received a shipment of fifty turtles from the New England Aquarium.

Ben Higgins: That's correct.

Rich Press: What did the folks up north have to do to make the turtles comfortable for a flight down to Texas?

Ben Higgins: Well, they needed something cheap and quick up in New England to package a whole bunch of turtles very quickly and I guess they went to the grocery store and got used banana boxes, the cardboard boxes that your bananas come in. And they take the turtles and they put a towel, a dry towel on the bottom of the boxes and sometimes they use a chemical heat pack under that to try and give the turtle a little bit of warmth. All the turtles made it here just fine and we unpacked them from their cardboard boxes and put them right into nice warm seawater.

Rich Press: Gotcha. And so what's the process now going forward? How do you help them out?

Ben Higgins: The process is we've started them all on antibiotics and everybody gets one squid the first day and then we slowly ramp up the amount of food that we feed them. All but one turtle is eating, which is really good. So that one turtle that's not eating we'll actually probably take it and put it over in our sea turtle hospital and it's going to get fluids and another medication to try and stimulate it to eat.

Rich Press: So I know that sea turtles face a lot of man-made threats but in this case with regard to the cold stun, this is a natural occurrence. Cold stuns must have been going on for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. So if this is a natural event, why intervene?

Ben Higgins: It is a natural event and you know maybe 10,000 years ago it was not uncommon to have a freezing event where you lost 10,000 turtles. But they were able to compensate because there was 40,000 of them nesting in a single day down in Mexico during the nesting season. Now there's, you know, it got down to a couple hundred. They've been in the form that they've been in right now since before the dinosaurs, and it's only been in the last 60 years or so that humans have taken them from being plentiful and pushed them to the brink of extinction. And we've made the conscious decision that we have a responsibility to at least sustain them if not try and bring them back to populations that were healthy before we started wiping them out with fishing, pollution—

Rich Press: Ben spoke some more about the threats that sea turtles face. It's a long list, but lots of smart people from NOAA Fisheries and elsewhere are working to reduce those threats. And as for the turtles that are recovering in Texas, those guys at least are safe for now. Once the water warms up enough, probably sometime in May, they'll be released back into the wild.

The people you heard from today are Kate Sampson, the NOAA Fisheries sea turtle stranding coordinator for the Northeast region and Ben Higgins who runs the sea turtle program at the NOAA Fisheries lab in Galveston, Texas. Both Ben and Kate wanted me to emphasis that this is not just a NOAA Fisheries operation. Many of the organizations in the stranding network are working on this rescue effort, and then of course, there are volunteers and airplane pilots who are pitching in as well.

The stranding network works year round and all around the nation's coast. If you see a stranding or entangled sea turtle or marine mammal, for that matter, call the stranding network hotline in your area. We've put a link to the hotline numbers on the Web page for this podcast. That's www.fisheries.noaa,gov/podcasts.

Thanks for listening, join us again next time for more stories about ocean life and ocean science. I’m Rich Press and you’re listening On the Line.


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You have been listening to the NOAA Fisheries’ podcast, "On the Line". Join us next time for a first-hand look at the people and the science behind managing our nation’s fisheries. For more information, visit NOAA Fisheries at www.fisheries.noaa.gov.

"On the Line" is a production of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Communications.
 

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