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Animal Rescue

Rescuing Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles

May 17, 2023

Every year, Mystic Aquarium opens its doors to a group of temporary residents: threatened and endangered sea turtles. These remarkable creatures, affected by cold stunning, find refuge in the Aquarium's Animal Rescue Clinic after stranding on the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts and throughout the New England coast.

Read about how and why we rescue cold-stunned turtles, and watch the video below to see our amazing rescue team in action!

Understanding Cold-Stunning

Cold stunning is a condition in which sea turtles become weak and inactive due to exposure to cold temperatures. This phenomenon occurs annually in the waters off the New England coast, particularly in Cape Cod. A combination of geography, climate, and animal behavior comes into play. Sea turtles migrate to the area during the warm summer months but struggle when temperatures drop rapidly. As cold-blooded animals, their core body temperature is directly influenced by the environment. When their body temperature drops, they lose the ability to swim, feed, and navigate, often washing up on beaches or in coastal marshes in a seemingly lifeless state.

Species Affected by Cold Stunning

In this area, four species of sea turtles are affected: Kemp's ridley, loggerhead, green, and leatherback. Among them, Kemp's ridley, the smallest and most endangered, is the most commonly stranded species. Each year, hundreds, and sometimes over 1,000, turtles strand in this region. Unfortunately, the number of stranded turtles is increasing, likely due to climate change-related impacts.

Reasons for High Strandings on Cape Cod

The unique shape of Cape Cod, resembling a hook, contributes to the high number of cold-stunned sea turtles stranding in this area. Sea turtles that are feeding in Cape Cod Bay when the cold snap occurs find it challenging to navigate back to the open ocean. Consequently, they are washed up onto the Cape by the currents and geography. Although sea turtles do strand in other coastal areas of New England, including Connecticut and Rhode Island, Cape Cod experiences the highest numbers.

Mystic Aquarium's Rescue Efforts

Every year, Mystic Aquarium admits cold-stunned turtles to their Rescue Clinic. The number of admissions varies, ranging from about a dozen to more than 20. The dedicated staff at the aquarium conducts intake exams on each turtle, initiating the rehabilitation process immediately. The turtles require several days of gradual warming to bring them out of their cold-stunned state. Only after they become more active do other health conditions, such as infections, emerge. Many turtles are diagnosed with pneumonia. Through weekly medical exams, their progress is closely monitored. Once the turtles regain their health, they are released back into the ocean. In cases where New England waters are still too cold for the turtles upon completion of rehabilitation, the team occasionally transports them to the warmer waters of South Carolina, ensuring their safe return to their ocean home.

Impact and Conservation Significance

Mystic Aquarium's conservation efforts have a significant impact. Consider the Kemp's ridley sea turtle, a critically endangered species with only about 20,000 mature individuals left in the wild. The population trend remains uncertain. A female Kemp's ridley turtle can lay thousands of eggs throughout her lifetime. Therefore, even saving a single animal can have a substantial conservation impact. Each rehabilitated and released turtle contributes to the preservation of the species.

Satellite Tracking for Research

To further enhance knowledge about sea turtles, Mystic Aquarium attaches satellite tags to each released turtle. These tags provide valuable data on their movements, including travel patterns, diving depths, and time spent near the surface. This information enriches the aquarium's database, contributing to a better understanding of the overall population of these magnificent creatures.

How You Can Help

Individual actions can play a role in saving sea turtles. Here are some ways you can make a difference:

  • Embrace the Four R's: Take action by refusing, reducing, reusing, and recycling. The presence of plastics and other debris in the ocean has a detrimental impact on marine animals, including sea turtles.
  • Opt for Sustainable Seafood: Choose to consume only sustainable seafood options. Overfishing can deplete fish populations that sea turtles depend on for sustenance. By selecting sustainable seafood, you ensure that there is enough food for these magnificent creatures.
  • Support Marine Animal Protection Organizations: Make a difference by visiting or donating to accredited zoos and aquariums, such as Mystic Aquarium. Your support provides the necessary funding to continue vital conservation efforts.
  • Become a First Responder: Take part in Mystic Aquarium's training program to become a first responder for stranded sea turtles and marine mammals. By learning how to respond and assist in sightings, you play a crucial role in their rescue and rehabilitation.
  • Slow Down: Sea turtles begin to return to New England waters in late spring. While out boating, keep your speed down so you can spot these animals and avoid injuring them.

Remember, your individual efforts, combined with collective action, can have a significant impact on the survival and well-being of sea turtles.