Rescued and Rehabilitated

June 2018

By Grayson Ponti

Thousands of Sea Turtles Saved from Record Cold Stunning

This past winter, over two thousand sea turtles washed up on the Texas shore suffering from symptoms including decreased heart rate and shock that left them unable to fend for themselves.  It was the largest such event the state had ever seen, but it was not an isolated occurrence. Hundreds of other sea turtles suffered in similar incidents all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. These turtles were falling victim to a hypothermic reaction known as cold stunning that affects them when water temperatures drop suddenly.

In response to these events, Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities from Texas to New England coordinated rescue and rehabilitation efforts in one of the biggest conservation success stories in recent memory.

One such facility is the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Va., which has an award-winning stranding response team made up of staff and volunteers.

“Sea turtles, being cold-blooded, are affected by cold water temperatures and they become lethargic and almost comatose if they are in cold water for too long,” said Mark Swingle, director of research and conservation at the Aquarium. “In 2017, we encountered forty cold stunned sea turtles in Virginia, but only 17 of them were alive. That’s a pretty big number for us. As you go farther north, you see larger cold stunning events ranging up to more than a thousand animals.”

The area most acutely impacted by cold stunning is along the northern Atlantic Coast, which is why the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass., has become a leader in confronting the problem. It has invested heavily in rescuing and rehabilitating cold stunned sea turtles on an annual basis and operates a sea turtle hospital in a converted shipyard building in Quincy, Mass.

Texas State Aquarium in Chorpus Christi, Texas, dealt with a record number of cold stunned sea turtles this past winter © Texas State Aquarium

“We receive Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that are stranded because of cold water in late fall to early winter,” said Mark Smith, vice president of animal care at the Aquarium. “We take them in, stabilize them, care for them and release them back into the wild. It’s a substantive investment in human resources, but we as an institution feel it is a good expenditure of our efforts.”

This is where teamwork among the affiliated facilities becomes essential. When the Aquarium’s hospital reaches capacity, other AZA-accredited facilities further south will often take in sea turtles rescued in New England to finish the rehabilitation process.

“New England Aquarium has traditionally been the hub of cold stunned sea turtles so they coordinate with NOAA to transfer turtles to other facilities,” said Willow Melamet, manager of the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, S.C. “In October or November, we will tell the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources we have the capacity to care for 20 cold stunned sea turtles if there’s a need.” 

“Basically, all the rehab facilities on the coast will work together and shift animals around depending on the numbers and needs,” said Michelle Lamping, an aquarist at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. “We’ll ship them all the way out to Texas.”

Even with this coordination, facilities sometimes have to rely on the help of volunteers to complete the transport. In December 2016, a Michigan couple volunteered to fly fifty-two sea turtles from the New England Aquarium to the Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City, Fla. This is just one example of the mosaic that emerges when aquariums lead the way.

“We have bigger capacity than other aquariums and are able to admit thirty sea turtles for long-term rehabilitation,” said Jennifer Dittmar, curator of animal rescue at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md. “We also help facilitate monthly transports to Florida so they can get the sea turtles cleared for release quicker than normal. We can hold them for a few days and be down in Jacksonville in twelve hours to release them in an area that’s 68 degrees. Without that, those turtles would often stay in rehab for a long time even if they were medically cleared for release.”

Sea turtle cold stunning events also occur further south off the coasts of Texas and Florida but they tend to manifest differently. For one thing, they primarily impact green sea turtles feeding in shallow waters, which are more vulnerable to rapid fluctuations in temperature. Also, because the water is warmer year-round, the mortality rate tends to be lower even when large numbers of animals are affected.

“In the Northeast, sea turtles are much more severely affected whether from pneumonia or frost bite,” said Swingle. “The mortality rate is relatively high and it can take a long time for them to recover, sometimes six months to a year. We actually have to raise their temperature slowly so their tissues can respond. The warming process is a relatively slow one that takes days rather than hours. They often are in a situation where they’re on a padded area in a container where we can monitor the external temperature. We get them into water as soon as possible to help their ability to move and the circulation in their muscles.”

In addition to restoring baseline elements like heart rate and body temperature, it is crucial that the animals are properly hydrated because they might not have eaten for an extended period of time. They are also run through a battery of tests to make sure they have not become ill. At the South Carolina Aquarium, Melamet said they perform radiographs on turtles to see if they have pneumonia and assess the results to determine antibiotic treatments.

“This was the largest sea turtle cold-stunning in history,” said Tom Schmid, president and chief executive of the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Texas.

This coordinated approach in response to cold stunning is important because the events are becoming more frequent and the numbers of turtles impacted are increasing regularly. “Of the last four years, we’ve had record numbers three times,” said Dittmar.

Cases were particularly severe this winter in the Gulf of Mexico where an unusually cold December and January led to more than two thousand sea turtles impacted along the Texas Coast, 1,500 of those on the Central Texas Coast. “This was the largest sea turtle cold-stunning in history,” said Tom Schmid, president and chief executive of the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Staff and Volunteers from the Texas State Aquarium and Padre Island National Seashore’s Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery collaborated to receive and maintain sea turtles and analyze records of their medical conditions. Over one third of the rescued turtles went to the Texas State Aquarium’s Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Center. “We’ve taken in 1,068 sea turtles and released 1,004 of them,” said Schmid.  Nearly eight hundred of those sea turtles were admitted between the dates of 1 and 10 January alone. 

Fortuitously, the Texas State Aquarium had just finished a renovation and expansion of its offsite wildlife rehabilitation facility. “It was timely,” said Schmid. “We had no idea we would be inundated with cold-stunned sea turtles.”

Soon, guests will be able to see some of the care provided by the rescue team who rehabilitate affected sea turtles. The Aquarium is planning on opening the Center for Wildlife Conservation featuring a rehab facility and spaces for education programming and conservation work including aquaculture. 

As for why the waters off of Texas were hit so hard by cold stunning, one can only hypothesize.

“Waters are staying warm for a while and then getting cold suddenly,” said Melamet. “The turtles are staying longer to forage and not migrating in time. It only takes a couple of degrees over a couple of days to make a difference. Their optimal temperature is 75 degrees so the cold really shuts down their system.”

Whatever the cause of the increase in cold-stunned sea turtles, AZA-accredited aquariums are preparing.

 “We could see more and more cold stunning with weather changes so we’re gearing up for this to be an annual event,” said Melamet. “We plan to have either local cold stunning or to take turtles from other facilities.”

With thousands of turtles released this year, the sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation effort by AZA-accredited aquariums is an example of meaningful conservation success. It is a testament to the top-notch care these facilities give their animals and how the expertise and skills of their staff can directly save animals in the wild.

Grayson Ponti is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md.

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