ORLEANS, Mass. — The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, one of the rarest and most endangered of the seven species of sea turtles, has been discovered motionless shortly after high tide on Cape Cod’s Skaket Beach. It had been in dire straits.
The cold fall sea temperatures off Cape Cod had dropped its own body temperature, developing a hypothermia-like condition known as cold-stunning. The cold water had slowed the creature’s heart rate, which makes it incapable and lethargic of swimming back into warmer waters.
Bob Prescott, a former manager of the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, carefully scooped up the monster, shortly to be designated No more. 112, to attempt to save its life.
“We treat them as if they’re living,” said Mr. Prescott, who’s widely credited with increasing awareness of the sea turtles’ surprising existence in the Cape. Considering that Mr. Prescott first discovered that a stranded turtle on a beach in the area at 1974, the amounts have just been climbing.
It is a phenomenon that investigators progressively associate, similar to the 11 inches of sea level increase the area has undergone because 1922, to climate change.
Worldwide, the oceans have consumed greater than 90 percentage of their heat trapped by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The Gulf of Maine, that the Cape curls has been warming”fairly quickly,” explained Lucas Griffin, a postdoctoral researcher at the department of environmental conservation in the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Some place it 99 percent quicker than the remainder of the sea”
The Kemp’s ridley turtles travel in their hatching sites along the Gulf of Mexico following sea currents. As water further north heated, they also followed. The majority of the turtles which keep turning up on Cape Cod are inclined to be between 4 and 2 years old.
“It appears the Kemp’s ridleys, and it appears like loggerheads, also, are moving further north in summer as the water temperatures increase,” explained David Steen that the herpetology research leader in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “But when winter strikes, they are unprepared for this fall in temperature plus they get cold-stunned.”
In 2014, a listing 1,241 cold-stunned creatures came, according to the Sanctuary’s data.
“About the Cape today, people really refer to it as sea turtle stranding year,” explained Tony LaCasse, then the media relations manager at the New England Aquarium (Mr. LaCasse abandoned the volcano soon following this post was reported). The volcano is an integral connection in the individual chain devoted to the rescue and treatment of cold-stunned sea turtles.
The series begins on the shores of Cape Cod, where volunteers, for example neighbors, families and a literature course in Penn State, walk the coastline seeking turtles.
They go out if water temperatures dip to the reduced 50 degrees Fahrenheit and after a day or 2 of continual winds have helped blow off the turtles ashore, conditions that a recent study confirmed are strongly linked with sea turtle stranding. The Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary helps coordinate the efforts.
After 112 was removed from the beach, Mr. Prescott drove it to the sanctuary about 15 minutes away. Turtles brought to the sanctuary are typically placed in a room warmed to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 13 Celsius. The temperature is vital — warming a cold-stunned turtle too quickly can stress the animal, potentially killing it. Managing stress is also why everyone in the turtle room whispers.
“Their cortisol levels, their stress hormones, are very high, so we try to avoid stimulating them further,” said Karen Dourdeville, who coordinates the sanctuary’s program for rescued turtles.
Stress, and practicality, is why after the turtles are weighed, measured and scanned for tags similar to the microchip implants used to track pets, before they are placed in a banana box. So far, three of the turtles rescued this year had been cold stunned and rescued before, one in 2017 and two in 2018.
“Banana boxes are perfect,” said Jenette Kerr, marketing and communications coordinator at the sanctuary. In addition to being easy to carry, “you can see inside but the turtles can’t see a lot.” The limited view helps keep the turtles calm.
This operation would have been unthinkable 40 years ago, because, back then, it was unclear that there were many sea turtles around Cape Cod. The scant evidence that did exist, such as sea turtle bones among Native American artifacts dating back centuries, or in the work of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote of hearing of a stranded sea turtle “as large as a barrel,” were generally chalked up to solitary incursions.
Mr. Prescott, who retired this summer after 40 years as director of the wildlife sanctuary in Wellfleet, spotted his first cold-stunned sea turtle in the region in 1974. “It was dead,” he said.
The following year he found two.
Other people started to walk the beaches too, after Mr. Prescott wrote about the turtle in the local paper. “By 1978, ‘79, it became pretty obvious that there were turtles here every year,” he said.
“The single variable that helped explain this trend was warmer late-fall temperatures,” said Dr. Griffin, who published a study that looked into what was causing the rise in cold-stunning.
Turtles are cold-blooded and depend on surrounding temperatures to regulate their internal body temperatures, which makes them extremely sensitive to ambient temperatures.
Cape Cod’s shape, a hooked peninsula, is especially confusing to the migrating turtles. As they move south they enter the open portion of the hook, the only way in or out. To leave, turtles would have to swim back out the way they came, north around the hook. It’s so puzzling that turtles aren’t the only animals that get stuck. In January, dolphins often require rescue.
From the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, 112 was taken to an animal hospital run by The New England Aquarium just outside of Boston. It’s here where the turtle was given its number — written with a paint marker on its shell. Responsive turtles are placed in a pool of water heated to 55 degrees Fahrenheit and helped to swim to help circulate the blood in their bodies.
Over four days, the turtles are gradually exposed to warmer temperatures, slowly increasing from 55 degrees to 75 degrees.
“And that’s where they’re considered to be at a stable temperature,” said Melissa Joblon, an associate veterinarian at the New England Aquarium.
Every animal is also given fluids and an antibiotic, “but if their lungs look great and they’re doing well, that’s all they might need,” said Dr. Joblon.
But 112, like roughly half of the turtles that end up near the Cape, did not arrive in good condition. Dr. Joblon had to intubate it and put it on a breathing assist machine.
Stable turtles, however, are sent to aquariums across the Atlantic Seaboard, because the hospital was not designed to handle the current volume of turtles. The turtles often travel by private plane, courtesy of a network of volunteer pilots organized by a nonprofit group called Turtles Fly Too. “Shortening the transition time reduces stress on the turtles and improves outcomes,” Mr. LaCasse said.
Cold-stunning is not the only threat facing Kemp’s ridleys. Sex determination in sea turtles depends on temperatures, “so with the shifting climate toward warming temperatures, in theory you could have a turtle population that’s increasingly female and that presents obvious problems over time,” Dr. Steen said.
Rising tides can also affect sea turtle nesting sites, including the Kemp’s ridley nesting sites along the Gulf of Mexico, harming eggs. And, there’s the question of how humans respond to the effects of climate change. If there is a retreat from the ocean’s edge, allowing the dune ecosystem sea turtles need to lay their eggs to persist, there’s hope. But building sea walls to protect buildings near the shore would cut the turtles off from the beach further endangering them.
It’s too soon to tell how 112 will fare. Eleven days after being rescued it was transferred to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which meant that it was stable enough to travel — a positive sign. It has since been renamed Stilton (this year’s theme for names for the rescued turtles, voted on by volunteers, was cheese). If it is rehabilitated, it will be taken to a beach with suitable ocean temperatures and released back into the wild.