Master Naturalists: Sea turtles stunned in Cape Cod waters

By Paul and Mary Meredith
Dec. 13, 2012 at 6:13 a.m.

Remember Flip, the Kemp's ridley sea turtle who showed up off the coast of the Netherlands after drifting in warm ocean currents for no one knows how long; and being washed ashore injured, starving and in shock, but alive? She was rescued and nursed back from the brink of death in the Netherlands.

Once rehabilitated, she was flown to Texas and ended up at the Animal Rehabilitation Keep in Port Aransas. She is now recuperated and was released to the wild with lots of fanfare by the Sea Turtle Recovery Program at Padre Island National Seashore.

Last week, more than two dozen sea turtles - reportedly greens, Kemp's ridleys, and loggerheads - were caught in a much more usual happening - a sudden drop in temperatures in the waters of Cape Cod, Mass. They suffered cold stress (hypothermia, which left them "stunned"). This season, more than 150 strandings (a record) of mostly young sea turtles have the New England Aquarium grappling with caring for the victims.

How they became victims

Sea turtles cannot keep themselves warm - their body temperature varies with the surrounding water. As water temperatures drop in coastal lagoons and bays, many sea turtles try to move through inlets and passes to warmer water - offshore or to the south. But a very rapid drop in air and water temperature can cause sea turtles in shallower coastal waters to develop hypothermia and become inactive, unable to help themselves.

Close to the sandy or muddy bottom, some sea turtles may be able to withstand short cold spells. But temperatures less than 50 degrees mean these cold-blooded animals may become stunned. Smaller sea turtles feel the effects of cold first, but if temperatures stay low long enough, larger sea turtles are also affected. A cold-stunned sea turtle cannot move (or eat) very well, if at all. They may be pushed by strong winds or currents onto the shore or into the marsh or just float at the water's surface.

Tony Casse of the aquarium said "even New Englanders are (a) little surprised that we have sea turtles. They're supposed to be summertime-only visitors." One rehabilitator nicknamed them "snow turtles."

Where they are now

By last Friday, the first 35 sea turtles were deemed healthy enough - recovered enough from the hypothermia and malnutrition they suffered from the cold they experienced - to be distributed to where they'll next receive care. Time for their airlift to Orlando, Fla., for distribution to five different care sites.

Once healthy and not showing signs of any kind of medical condition or other problem, most of them will be released, probably off Florida's East Coast. The (tropical) Kemp's ridleys usually end up in the Gulf of Mexico, their more usual habitat. Some other turtles end up in Cuba or the Caribbean. Turtles that don't recover retire, sometimes in Florida, sometimes at other aquariums across the United States.

Off they go

Last Friday morning, boxed and blanketed, the first 35 turtles were airlifted to five different facilities for further care.

Twenty young Kemp's ridleys went to Sea World in Orlando and 12 loggerheads to several South Florida centers.

Their care could last months.

Other than Sea World in Orlando, some facilities caring for the sea turtles over coming months include Tampa's Florida Aquarium, Volusia County's Marine Science Center, the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach and Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at



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