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After a slow start to the sea turtle stranding season, the New England Aquarium is treating an increasing number of turtles rescued from Cape Cod beaches.
Rescue and Animal Health staff at the Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy have cared for 119 sea turtles: 109 critically endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles, eight green turtles and two loggerheads.
The turtles are receiving treatment for life-threatening medical conditions including pneumonia and dehydration, a result of hypothermia and the inability to feed.
“After months of planning and preparation, our team has mobilized quickly to triage these animals as temperatures dip in Cape Cod Bay and lead to more and more strandings,” said Adam Kennedy, manager of Rescue and Rehabilitation for the aquarium.
Each year, hundreds of cold-stunned sea turtles wash up on Cape beaches. Because of the rapidly changing water temperature and wind pattern, many turtles cannot escape the hook-like area of Cape Cod Bay before becoming hypothermic.
Starting in October, staff and volunteers with the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary begin to comb the beaches looking for stranded, hypothermic turtles that are then transported to the Sea Turtle Hospital.
This year, the season got off to a late start due to temperature fluctuations that kept Cape Cod Bay warm, with the first few turtles admitted to the Sea Turtle Hospital on Nov. 17.
This past Saturday alone, 41 turtles were taken to the aquarium’s facility for care. Two of the more unusual cases include a loggerhead and a 20-pound green turtle.
“Early in the season, we typically see the smaller Kemp’s ridley and green turtles,” said Charles Innis, director of Animal Health at the aquarium. “The larger loggerhead turtles will start to wash ashore in December, though we saw our first loggerhead of the season on Thanksgiving Day. Every case is unique, and each turtle receives specific care based on its condition.”
Hospitalized turtles are managed similarly to hospitalized humans. They are assigned an identification number, a medical record is created, and they are evaluated to determine the nature of their illness.
The turtles are assessed through physical examination, bloodwork, X-rays, and measurement of heart rate and respiratory rate. Due to the severity of their illness, many turtles require weeks or months of treatment, including fluid therapy and antibiotics.
Once turtles are stabilized, the aquarium’s veterinarians will clear them for travel to a secondary rehabilitation facility. The aquarium works closely with colleagues at the NOAA Fisheries Service to identify rehabilitation centers across the country that can accept the stabilized turtles, making room for new arrivals in Massachusetts.