Green, one of the turtles rescued in the 1999 mass stranding

Cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley turtles

Kemp’s ridley physical exam

During a normal sea turtle stranding season we typically handle a dozen or so cold-stunned animals, for which we generally have adequate resources. 1999, however, was anything but a normal year.

The numbers were staggering and unprecedented. From November 8, 1999 through January 10, 2000, 277 sea turtles were found washed ashore on Cape Cod beaches. In all, 218 Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempi), 54 loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and 5 green turtles (Chelonia mydas) were found. 144 of them were recovered alive and brought to the Aquarium for critical care. With 144 sea turtles needing critical care (17 loggerheads, 4 greens and 123 Kemp's ridleys), we had to think quickly and be creative. There were sick turtles everywhere!

With such an enormous number of turtles in need of care, it became imperative to triage cases promptly, and find places to house and treat them all. Fortunately for us, we were able to turn to a number of other treatment facilities for help. Once animals were stabilized, diagnosed, and deemed strong enough to survive transport, we sent many of the less severe cases to other aquariums and hospitals along the eastern seaboard.

When treating cold-stunned sea turtles, it is very important to provide a gradual increase in ambient temperature. If they warm up too quickly, they can go into shock and die. With hypothermia a turtle’s metabolism is severely slowed down – enough to slow heart rates down to less than one beat per minute. With such slow metabolism, their bodies are very slow to respond to treatments and medications. In fact the full extent of a cold-stunned turtle’s health problems sometimes take many weeks to become evident.

All of the turtles were treated for severe hypothermia, dehydration, and emaciation. Most also needed therapy for a host of other problems including frostbite, pneumonia, and shell injuries. For many cases, there were no previously established protocols or treatment regimes to follow. We were constantly challenged to innovate new techniques for diagnostics and treatments.

Our most significant achievement of the 1999 turtle season is that we saved 83 endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles. This is especially noteworthy considering current population estimates of a mere 6000-7000 breeding adults left in the world today. These rescued animals will have another chance to return to the wild, hopefully to breed and help their species to avoid extinction.

As of the fall of 2001, almost all of the turtles treated in the 1999-stranding event were returned to the wild. A few were still going through the rehabilitation process, which can be very lengthy for sea turtles.

Our hearty thanks go out to the many agencies who helped make these efforts so successful. We are greatly indebted to the many Massachusetts Audubon Society staff and volunteers who walked the bitter cold Cape Cod beaches to rescue these threatened and endangered animals. They were instrumental in providing the turtles with triage, initial care and speedy transport to the Aquarium in Boston.

Facilities that came to our rescue to help take responsibility for care of turtles were: The Turtle Hospital in Marathon Key, Florida; The Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, FL; EPCOT’s Living Seas in Orlando, FL; the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, FL; the Marine Life Center in Juno Beach, FL; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, MA; the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, CT; the Karen Beasley Turtle Hospital, Topsail Island, NC; the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach, VA; The Riverhead Foundation on Long Island, NY; The Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA; and The Columbus Zoo, in Columbus, Ohio. Many thanks also go to the folks with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the United States Coast Guard, Eastern Air Charter, America West and Zoo New England, all of whom helped transport turtles home to Florida and elsewhere.