A Chelonian Log: the story of cold-stunned sea turtles; Nicky & Jedi

cold stunned

Part I.  Stranding

Cold-stunned sea turtle immediately after being picked up off the beach. Photo by Leah Desrochers
Cold-stunned sea turtle immediately after being picked up off the beach. Photo by Leah Desrochers

The tide is high and the waves attempt to lap at the volunteer’s boots as he stumbles his way across the beach fighting the rain and wind.  He tries to block all skin from the pelting rain and blowing sand while the fabric of his rain pants and jacket billows around him.  It’s November 24, 2015 and he’s walking the beaches of Brewster, Massachusetts on the search for a cold-stunned sea turtle.

Up ahead the volunteer sees a rock with tangles of knobbed wrack; tendrils being tugged at by the outgoing tide.  As he approaches it closer, he notices it’s not a rock at all.  It’s a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle.  He tightens his hood around his face as he crouches down to help the cold-stunned turtle.  As instructed by the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, the volunteer gingerly picks the creature up and moves it to higher ground safe from the reaching waves.  Around him on the beach is washed up seaweed.  He finds the driest bit and covers the turtle, protecting it from the impending winds.  Before continuing on his walk down the beach, the volunteer calls the Sanctuary, and lets them know of the discovery.

Cold-stunned sea turtles collected after a midnight high tide. If still alive the next morning, will be transported to the New England Aquarium. Photo by Leah Desrochers
Cold-stunned sea turtles collected after a midnight high tide. If still alive the next morning, will be transported to the New England Aquarium. Photo by Leah Desrochers

Each year, between the months of October and January, hundreds of sea turtles wash up on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay.  In past years it was rare if greater than 200 turtles were found.  In 2012, 400 sea turtles ranging from Loggerheads, and Kemp’s Ridleys, and even Greens were found on the beaches.  2012 was an outlier year.  Until 2014 came along.  The cold-stunned sea turtle season of 2014 resulted in over 1,200 sea turtles.  Wellfleet Bay volunteers would walk the beaches during stormy weather and report the turtles they found.  Staff members would head to the beaches and retrieve them, bringing them back for processing at the Nature Center.

When I would see a turtle on the beach, (or a pile of wrack under which I knew there must be a turtle), my brain would immediately kick into hyper-focused gear.  My goal was always to get the turtle off of the beach as quickly and gently as possible, trying to shelter its body against the wind while power-walking to the car.  I also knew I had to be my absolute best to help them, which meant combining this need for efficiency with a careful eye for detail: folding a towel just so to support a turtle’s head, making sure a flipper wasn’t bent awkwardly, retying a tag that looked too tight.  I usually didn’t let myself process the fact that I was, briefly, directly responsible for the well being of the most endangered sea turtles in the world; that was for later, when I was catching my breath after a shipment of turtles headed out to the NEAq [New England Aquarium] rehab facility, or collapsing in bed after a midnight turtle patrol,” said Rebecca Shoer, a sea turtle rescue staff member at the Sanctuary.  On one day this past season, a staff member headed to a beach to retrieve one turtle, and instead came back with eleven.

The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary prepared for the 2015 cold-stun season with gusto. Because of the 2014 totals, everyone believed that 2015 would be the worst year yet and that we would again receive over 1,000 cold-stunned sea turtles.  Volunteers went weekly to grocery stores nearby to collect banana boxes for the sea turtle transportation.  Before long, an entire banana box city was created in one of the day camp’s classrooms and there weren’t enough turtles washing ashore to use them all.

Banana box skyscrapers collected by WBWS volunteers. Photo by Leah Desrochers

The 2015 season didn’t live quite up to expectations but there were still more turtles than 2012.  With a total of 600 cold stunned sea turtles, the vast majority of them were in pretty rough shape.  In fact, they seemed practically comatose when they arrived for processing at the nature center.

Sometimes it was easy to tell if a turtle was still alive: I would feel a surge of joy when a cold-stunned turtle raised its head for a gasp of air, or when I’d hear one shifting around slowly in its box.  Others, however, were much harder to tell, and the real final test was checking a turtle’s blink reflex.  I’d carefully take a finger and gently tap the corner of its eye, hoping to see the slightest wince. Even then, if there wasn’t a response, we couldn’t be 100% certain that the turtle wasn’t alive; a few times turtles held overnight would show quiet signs of life the next day.  Of course, there were also the turtles that simply couldn’t make it, and died while they were getting prepped for transportation,” said Shoer of the intake process.

Cold-stunned Green sea turtle taking a breath during intake processing at the Wellfleet Bay WIldlife Sanctuary. Photo by Leah Desrochers

The ones that survived the stranding went on to the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center for stabilization and rehabilitation.  Sea turtles #157 and #166 survived the rescue and car ride to the Aquarium.  It is here that we will start our next chapter.





Posted by Leah D. Leah is a Spring, 2016 Intern at the National Marine Life Center. She recently graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a Bachelor’s degree in Marine, Estuarine, and Freshwater Biology and a minor in Animal Behavior.