Sea Turtle Rescue! | JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD

Sea Turtle Rescue! | JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD

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It’s a cold January day in Massachusetts.
The ocean here around Cape Cod is in the low 40’s and a strong wind is howling off the
water. But the wind is a blessing. Stranded on the sand is a juvenile Kemp’s
Ridley sea turtle. This little guy is barely clinging to life. He would have drowned in
the cold water, except that the strong wind blew him ashore. Sea turtles are marine reptiles that live
almost all of their lives in the sea. They must surface to breathe, but they spend most
of their time underwater foraging for food. In some places, when the water is cooler like
the Galapagos and Hawaii, sea turtles do occasionally crawl up on the beach to warm up in the sun.
But most sea turtles only come ashore to lay their eggs in a nest at night. The eggs hatch a few months later and the
baby sea turtles race to the sea. Most won’t come ashore again for many years, as adults,
when they are ready to lay eggs of their own. There are seven species of sea turtles in
the world, like the green sea turtle, the loggerhead, and the Hawksbill. All are considered
endangered or vulnerable. But none are rarer than the critically endangered
Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, which lives primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and Florida. In the summer, Kemp’s Ridley turtles follow
the warm water of the gulf stream northward into the prime feeding grounds as far away
as New England, and even Newfoundland. As the water cools in the fall, most of them
turn and swim south again, hugging the coast, munching on algae, and making their way back
to warm water before winter. But some of the turtles enter Massachusetts
Bay, trapped by Cape Cod, and can’t figure out how to get home. As the water gets cooler, the turtles start
to freeze. As reptiles, they cannot keep their bodies warm when the water cools. They get
lethargic and start to have trouble swimming. Many drown. But when the wind starts to blow, as it often
does, it blows the exhausted animals ashore, where volunteers from the Massachusetts Audubon
Society Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary are patrolling the beach. Every year in the fall and early winter, hundreds
of sea turtles wash up along the beaches of Cape Cod. Most of them are the critically
endangered Kemp’s Ridley. So every year, there is a massive effort to rescue and save
as many as possible. Volunteers look for stranded turtles. When
they find one, they place it gently in a banana box for transport. Why a banana box? They
are free, strong, and already have ventilation holes. First the sea turtles are transported back
to the Mass Audubon Society Wellfleet office. Biologist Rebecca Shoer and some volunteers
are doing triage. So the different types of measurements that
Colin is doing, the first one is a straight measurement with a caliper—that gives you
an idea of the straight length of a turtle’s shell, its width, things like that. Then we
do a curved measurement with that soft tape and that gives us an idea of the shape of
the turtle’s shell. And then we’re doing the weight, which is 2.4—and that’s in
kilograms. The last thing we do before we take photos is that we make any notes of any
medical issues with this turtle. And you can see on this one, it’s got—it’s bleeding
from this eye here. Don’t know if that was a bird that pecked it or something like that.
So we’ll make a note of that for the aquarium, but this guy’s alive and not looking great,
but this is actually not a turtle in terrible shape. Soon the turtles are packed up for a 90 minute
ride in their banana boxes up to the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Quincy,
just south of Boston. In this nondescript warehouse, with a staff of five and a dozen
volunteers, hundreds of sea turtles are being rehabilitated. Hey! Hi Katie! How are you? I’m doing well, how are you? Great! Thanks for having me down! Thanks for coming over! I arrive and meet Katie Pugliares, a senior
biologist at the New England Aquarium. She takes me on a tour of the facility and I get
to meet a bunch of sea turtles. The rescued turtles are divided into different
tanks based on size, species and even temperature. The turtles can’t be warmed right up from
being hypothermic. That could actually make them even more sick. They have to be warmed
up very slowly. As they warm up, they get more active and
lively. I wonder if they know how lucky they are to be alive? Once they are back up to temperature, they’re
hungry. And sometimes feisty! We systematically go through, we monitor their
weight, make sure they have healthy weight gain. If any turtles start losing weight,
it’s a sign that we need to look a little more closely. We look for any ulcerations
in their eyes, obstructions in their nose, we look in their mouths as well. And then
we check their flippers. Sometimes infections will progress into their joints and that’s
not really a good thing. For turtles that have prolonged swelling of their joints and
even after antibiotic treatment, they are not going away, we do laser therapy. And it takes care of those unsightly wrinkles
too! Katie takes me into one of the clinics where
a new patient is being checked out—a small Kemp’s Ridley. We’re doing a tracheal wash so we can get
some of the debris from the upper respiratory, and we’ll send it out for culture and identify
the bacteria. And then because he does have different sedation drugs, we’ll monitor
him for a little while and make sure his heart rate gets back up to where it should be before
we introduce him back into the pool. And then we’ll watch him when he gets back into the
pool and make sure he responds really well. As the stranding season goes on, the rehab
pools get full. The sea turtles have to be numbered to keep track of them all. There
are hundreds of them! Soon, there are so many that crowding can
be a problem. So the healthiest ones are ready to go back to the wild. Unfortunately, it’s still winter in Boston,
so a small group of lucky turtles get their own private flight (with a volunteer pilot)
down to Orlando, Florida. Here, Sea World will take over. The turtles get a check up,
then a few days to rest and recover from their flight. Finally, it’s off to a beautiful
Florida beach. The turtles are released into nice warm water, and given a second chance
at life. Saving cold-stunned sea turtles takes incredible
time, money and effort. It would be staggering to add up the cost involved to save each one
of these marine reptiles. But when I see this effort, I have renewed faith in humanity.
People do care about wildlife, and in the case of highly endangered animals like the
Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, every rescue counts.

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