The New England Aquarium is home to three well-known sea turtles—Myrtle, Carolina, and Retread—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

For more than 25 years, the New England Aquarium has partnered with Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to rescue, rehabilitate, and release thousands of endangered and threatened sea turtles.

In the past decade alone, staff members from our Quincy Animal Care Facility have treated thousands of Kemp’s ridley, green, and loggerhead sea turtles and successfully released up to 85% of them. These numbers are especially significant considering Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the most endangered sea turtles in the world.

rescuer examines turtle patient
A member of our turtle team examines a cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtle.

Meet Munchkin

During the summer of 2019, we released a special series following one very special sea turtle patient. Learn what goes into rehabilitating a sea turtle, from rescue on the beach to release in the wild, and even follow Munchkin’s journey back to the ocean. 

FOLLOW ALONG ON MUNCHKIN’S JOURNEY!

Munchkin the loggerhead sea turtle at the Quincy Animal Care Center
Munchkin

Species: Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)
Conservation Status: Vulnerable
Location found:
Great Island, Wellfleet, MA
Date Admitted: November 21, 2018
Date Released: July 2, 2019.
Admission Weight: 137 kg, Current Weight: 151 kg

Munchkin is the largest loggerhead sea turtle the New England Aquarium has ever rehabilitated. She was admitted with significant wounds along her right front flipper. She is missing portions of her right front flipper and left hind flipper, possibly from an entanglement. After nine months of dedicated care, she was released in early July 2019! 


Why Do Turtles Strand?

Sea turtles strand when they are sick or injured, and strandings can be associated with changes in environmental condition. As cold-blooded reptiles,  they depend on the temperature of their surroundings to maintain their body temperature. Sea turtles can normally control their body temperatures by moving between areas of water with different temperatures or basking in the sun at the water’s surface or on the beach. However, when temperatures rapidly decline and sea turtles are cut off from warmer waters, they can suffer from a form of hypothermia we call cold-stunning.

The cold-stun phenomenon happens every fall when the water temperatures in Cape Cod Bay cool. Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck, become sick and hypothermic, and wash up on Cape Cod beaches.

Untamed Science: The Most Endangered Sea Turtles are Getting Too Cold!

Turtle treatment can last from several months to two years. Most of the sea turtles that arrive at the Aquarium recover and are released back into the ocean. Our rescue team works diligently to treat the turtles until they are healthy enough to be released.

Being able to move a large number of re-warmed and medically stable sea turtles to other rehab facilities quickly is a critical need that has been met by a remarkable aviation group called Turtles Fly Too. Coordinating with NOAA and the Aquarium, Idaho-based Leslie Weinstein has rallied the general and business aviation communities to provide critically important flights that aid in the recovery of endangered sea turtle species.

Threats to Sea Turtles

The world’s seven species of sea turtles have roamed the oceans for hundreds of millions of years. But today, most of these species are endangered and all are threatened due to unprecedented threats from humans, including fishing bycatch, entanglement, boat strike, poaching, loss of nesting habitat, pollution, oil spills, and climate change.

  1. Climate Change

    From sea level rise impacting nesting beaches to warmer water temperatures and changes in food supply, climate change is already having an effect on the world’s seven species of sea turtles.

    A sea turtle hatchling makes its way toward the ocean. Photo credit: NOAA.

    Studies also show that higher temperatures impact sea turtle gender ratios. Increased incubation temperatures have been shown to result in more female sea turtles, adversely impacting genetic diversity.

  2. Pollution

    Plastics and Trash

    In important feeding areas, water currents may concentrate turtles’ food sources with floating debris. Turtle Ecologist Dr. Kara Dodge and other researchers with the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life have spotted an incredible variety of plastic waste in the field, including balloons, food wrappers, beach toys, flip-flops, grocery bags, and water and soda bottles, not to mention the microplastics that are invisible to the naked eye.  

    Pieces of balloon found inside a sea turtle.

    Turtles feeding on this contaminated “soup” are highly likely to ingest some of these plastics.

    Marine Debris

    Marine debris can entangle and harm marine organisms. For air-breathing organisms, such as the green sea turtle, entanglement in debris can prevent animals from being able to swim to the water’s surface, causing them to drown.

    A sea turtle is entangled in a fishing net. Photo courtesy: NOAA.

    The incidental capture in fishing gear is also known as “bycatch,” and it’s one of the greatest threats to sea turtles and many other species worldwide. In Massachusetts, important leatherback turtle feeding habitat coincides with high densities of fixed fishing gear, and hundreds of leatherback entanglements have been reported.

  3. Other Stressors

    Ocean Industrialization

    According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),  hundreds of sea turtles are struck by vessels in the United States every year, and many of them are killed without being observed. Vessel strikes are one of the most common causes of sea turtles stranding in the United States.

    An intake photo of “Toast” to the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital from December 2018 suffering from a major shell fracture, most likely due to a propeller strike and hypothermia with a body temperature in the 40s.
    An intake photo of “Toast” to the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital from December 2018 shows the turtle suffering from a major shell fracture, most likely due to a propeller strike.
    Toast being released on a Florida beach in April 2019.

    The industrialization of our oceans has led to an increase in the number of sea turtles that have been injured by ship strikes.

How Can You Help?

  • Talk to your family and friends! Sharing the story gets others involved and helps them know the dangers faced by turtles.
  • Reduce the amount of garbage along the coast and in local marine habitats. This includes removing trash that can be ingested by turtles and discarded fishing line that can cause entanglements.
  • Watch out for turtles while boating to avoid ship strikes.
  • Don’t feed wildlife, including sea turtles.
  • If you see an injured, entangled, or stranded sea turtle, please call the appropriate authorities in your area.

Numbers to call!

  • Aquarium’s Marine Animal Hotline:  617-973-5247.
  • Massachusetts sea turtle entanglements: 1-800-900-3622 (Center for Coastal Studies) or hail USCG on VHF 16
  • Massachusetts sea turtle sightings: 1-888-SEA-TURT (Wellfleet Audubon)
  1. African Penguins

    Visit the Aquarium

    Every New England Aquarium ticket sold helps us protect the blue planet. Which means when you visit us in Boston, you are helping us do important work all around the world. Every visit to Central Wharf sets off a ripple effect of good that travels across the ocean.

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  2. plastic bag in the ocean

    Reduce Single-Use Plastics

    At the New England Aquarium, we’ve worked to eliminate all single-use plastics in favor of recyclable, compostable, or reusable materials. You can do the same. By making thoughtful choices and working together, we can reduce plastic pollution.

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  3. Support the New England Aquarium

    Because we’re a nonprofit institution, we rely on the support of visitors, members, and donors. You support everything the Aquarium does.

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Dr. Kara Dodge tags a leatherback sea turtle.
Drs. Charlie Innis and Kara Dodge tag a leatherback sea turtle before release.

Meet the Turtles

The Aquarium is home to three sea turtles.

Myrtle

Species: Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Conservation Status: Endangered
Weight: 550 pounds

Often referred to as the queen of the Giant Ocean Tank, this massive turtle has been a resident at the New England Aquarium since 1970. Her favorite foods are brussel sprouts and squid. When she’s not being fed, Myrtle can often be found snoozing on the corals about halfway up the spiral of the Giant Ocean Tank. It’s estimated that she’s between 90 and 95 years old, but she still gets around the tank like a young hatchling! She lives in the Aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank.

Carolina the Loggerhead
Carolina

Species: Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)
Conservation Status: Vulnerable
Weight: 152 pounds

Carolina is the smallest of the three turtles in the Giant Ocean Tank. Like all loggerheads, she has a thick neck, pointed beak, and brown-orange shell. When she’s not eating veggies, you may catch her resting at the bottom of the tank. She lives in the Aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank.

Retread the Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Retread

Species: Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)
Conservation Status: Vulnerable
Weight:
196 pounds

Retread was rescued from a Cape Cod beach 30 years ago on Thanksgiving Day. She was nursed back to health, but rescuers realized she was blind and would never survive in the wild. So today she lives in the Giant Ocean Tank. Divers use a rattle to call her for feeding time. Retread can be identified by the imperfections on her shell, such as the small pockmark behind her left flipper. She lives in the Aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank.

Our Quincy Animal Care Facility is the temporary home to hundreds of recuperating sea turtles every year. Meet just a few of this year’s rescue class!

grits the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle
Grits

Species: Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)
Conservation Status: Critically Endangered
Location Found: Skaket Beach, Orleans, MA
Date Admitted: November 30, 2018
Admission Weight: 3.15 kg, Current Weight: 3.3 kg

This turtle is a fighter! Grits suffered from severe pneumonia and had to undergo a major surgery to collect a lung sample. He recently started eating well, and his health is improving. The turtle has responded well to new treatment. Grits is still at the Quincy Animal Care Facility, but is a potential release candidate for summer 2019.

Toast

Species: Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)
Conservation Status:
Vulnerable
Location Found:
Great Island, Wellfleet, MA
Date Admitted: December 5, 2018
Admission Weight: 13 kg, Release Weight: 19.9 kg

Toast was found with three major wounds across the shell, most likely from a propeller strike. Although this is still a significant wound, it never seemed to slow down Toast. Since being admitted, this turtle has been active and eager to eat. The wound healed well, and Toast was released in Florida in April.

Scrambled Eggs, the rescued Kemp's ridley
Scrambled Eggs

Species: Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)
Conservation Status: Critically Endangered
Location Found: Crosby Landing Beach, Brewster, MA
Date Admitted: October 25, 2018
Admission Weight: 3.5 kg, Release Weight: 4 kg

This turtle was admitted with a significant wound on the left front flipper. Staples were placed along the wound, and laser therapy was applied to promote healing. Scrambled Eggs likes to swim in the outflow and eat an excessive amount of squid! The flipper wound has healed, and she was released in Florida on April 23, 2019.

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