Year of the Turtle
Northeast Region

Neither snow, nor rain, nor ocean waves…. Stranding network volunteers face unfavorable conditions to save endangered sea turtles
BY: Raechel I. Kelley

On a cold day in December, volunteer Bill Allan scanned the Cape Cod beach in the early morning sunlight, searching for smooth flippers and scaly green shells. Focusing just beyond shore, his eyes settled on a lifeless sea turtle bobbing in the waves.

Without a second thought, Allan stripped to his underwear and plunged into the 40-degree ocean. As he waded through the chest-deep water, he noticed the turtle's head slowly rise above the waves, giving Allan a sense of relief and hope.

Like many turtles rescued by Allan, this one suffered from cold stunning. Similar to hypothermia in humans, this condition leaves turtles disoriented and unable to migrate to warmer waters.

“These peaceful, long-distance mariners come to the bay for a summer of fun,” Allan said, “but as winter approaches, some get locked in by the arm of Cape Cod.”

Though cold stunning can be lethal, this lucky survivor was picked up by the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, and later transported to the New England Aquarium, just one of many rehabilitation centers in the Northeast Sea Turtle Stranding Network.

“When these turtles are struggling to survive dropping temperatures, starvation and sickness, we’re the only ones between life and death,” said Allan, who has volunteered for the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for 11 years.

Sea turtles become cold-stunned because they are ectothermic, meaning their body temperature is controlled by their surrounding environment. Some sea turtles will travel as far north as Alaska or Canada, and later return to more tropical waters for nesting season, from March to October.

If sea turtles are cold-stunned during their migration, they not only lose their sense of direction, but also suffer from symptoms like frostbite, malnutrition and dehydration. Since temperatures have a tendency to rapidly drop in the Northeast, sea turtles are often cold-stunned in areas like Cape Cod and Long Island.

Each year, as November weather kicks in, about 100 volunteers begin combing the beach up to twice a day to find these cold-stunned creatures. In 2010, 126 cold-stunned sea turtles were found on the Cape shores and transferred to the New England Aquarium alone.

Allan, who worked in finance before retiring, leads a volunteer group composed of nurses, engineers, teachers, students and others with diverse backgrounds.

“What we hold in common is this amazing experience,” he said. “It’s easy to get hooked. When you’re out there, you find a turtle that’s still alive, and you save it, that’s a big deal.”

The sea turtle stranding network was started in 1980 and operates as a joint effort with federal and state agencies and non-governmental organizations, such as non-profit organizations, universities, and aquariums.

“It is the collaborative nature of the network that ensures that stranded sea turtles receive the best possible care, and that we maximize the information collected from stranding events, allowing us to better manage sea turtles,” says Kate Sampson, Stranding Network Coordinator.

Sampson, who works in the Northeast region of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), explains that stranding network organizations and agencies work together by sharing the responsibility of caring for stranded turtles, transporting turtles to rehabilitation centers or release sites, providing resources to neighboring organizations, and much more.

“Thanks to volunteers and member organizations, the stranding network succeeds in saving hundreds of sea turtles,” said Alex Hoar, the Endangered Species Permit Coordinator for the Northeast Region of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). “The rescue, rehabilitation and release of healthy sea turtles are not only opportunities to help populations, but also channels to increase understanding of the challenges and needs to reach recovery.”

Each year, about 50 to 200 Kemp’s ridley, green and loggerhead sea turtles may cold-stun in Massachusetts starting in late October to December.

Kemp’s ridleys are the rarest and most endangered of the seven sea turtle species found in North America. They are also the species that is most plagued by cold stunning in the Northeast, accounting for over 75 percent of all recovered cold-stunned turtles in the region.

The turtle Allan rescued in December is a Kemp’s ridley, and is recovering quite well under the watch of Senior Biologist Adam Kennedy with the New England Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Team.

“He’s doing really great,” Kennedy said. “We’d like to get [the turtle] back in the wild as soon as possible.”

The turtle, now called Professor X, has lived up to his superhero name by recovering in record timing. Kennedy explained that many turtles brought to the aquarium are there for around eight months, but lively turtles like Professor X, may be transported to Georgia or Florida in the spring for an early release.

Timing is everything when it comes to saving these turtles. Some cold-stunned turtles may float in the ocean for weeks before being rescued, making their chances for recovery much more difficult. Many arrive to the rehabilitation centers dramatically under-weight and covered in algae and barnacles. But thanks to all the members of the Northeast Sea Turtle Stranding Network, including volunteers and biologists like Allan and Kennedy, a rescued cold-stunned turtle has an 86 percent chance of being released back into the wild.

Sea turtles are among the largest and oldest living reptiles on the planet, and many populations are struggling for survival. USFWS, with jurisdiction for sea turtles on land, and NOAA, with jurisdiction for sea turtles in the marine environment, work together to ensure the conservation and recovery of these creatures. If you find a stranded sea turtle on the beach or in the ocean, please call your local stranding network or the NOAA Northeast region stranding hotline: (866) 755-NOAA.

Wellfleet Bay volunteer, Bill Allan, rescuing a small Kemp Ridley's. Credit: NER Sea Turtle Stranding Network
Wellfleet Bay volunteer, Bill Allen, rescueing a small Kemp Ridley's.

What do I do if I find a cold stunned turtle?

  1. If the turtle is in the water, do not disturb it and observe it from a safe distance of 100 yards.
  2. If the cold-stunned turtle is on the beach, Carefully pull the turtle away from the tide and to the high tide location.
  3. If possible, cover the turtle with seaweed for warmth.
  4. Use a landmark to identify the turtle's location or mark it with any surrounding debris.
  5. Call your local stranding network or the NOAA stranding hotline at: (866) 755-NOAA (6622).
  6. Wait for the stranding network representative to arrive so you can bring the representative to the location of the cold stunned turtle.
This cold-stunned sea turtle was rescued off the shores of Cape Cod and is doing well under the watch of biologists at the New England Aqurium. The turtle's name is Professor X. Credit: New England Aqurium
This cold-stunned sea turtle was rescued off the shores of Cape Cod and is doing well under the watch of biologists at the New England Aqurium. The turtle's name is Professor X.
The Northeast Region Sea Turtle Stranding and Disentanglement Network. Credit: NOAA
The Northeast Region Sea Turtle Stranding and Disentanglement Network.

The New England Aquarium accepts volunteers that are willing to commit one full day per week. For more information visit the New England Aquarium website.

Cold stuns in the News

Cold-stunned turtle washes ashore- Star News Online (Jan 2012)

Unseasonable weather takes toll on turtles - Boston Herald (Dec. 2011)

Possible Texas turtle washes up on Cape Cod beaches- The Monitor (Dec. 2010)

Cold stunned turtles; aquarium staff aids in recuperation- The Carolina Coast Online  (Dec 2010)

This turtle is on his way home after being released from a cold-stun rehab center.Credit: NER Sea Turtle Stranding Network
This turtle is on his way home after being released from a cold-stun rehab center.


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Last updated: January 17, 2013