Updated Feb 1, 2018

The race to rescue New England's freezing sea turtles

Hundreds of young, hypothermic, near-death turtles wash up on the shores of Cape Cod every year. But when Bob Prescott first found a Kemp’s ridley turtle on a frigid Massachusetts beach in 1974, he thought it was an anomaly. The number of stranded turtles has steadily climbed — over 1200 washed ashore in 2014 — and experts think climate change is partly to blame.

Axios traveled to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where about 30 of those turtles were being treated and monitored. Watch this video, or read on to learn more about them.

What's happening: Kemp’s ridleys, also called Atlantic ridleys, are the most endangered species of sea turtle. Now, there is a coordinated, multi-state effort to rescue and rehabilitate them, and understand why they're in New England in the first place.

Today, Prescott is the director of the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, which coordinates the volunteers on the front lines of the fight to save the turtles.

What you need to know about turtles:

  • Kemp’s ridley sea turtles hatch on beaches in Mexico, then swim to open water where they shelter in floating masses of seaweed.
  • It’s a bit of a mystery what happens next: tracking hatchling turtles is incredibly hard. Some of the turtles probably stay in the Gulf of Mexico. Others might get caught in the Gulf Stream and swept north.
  • Once the turtles are between 3 and 5 years old, some go to the waters off the coast of New England to a region known as the Gulf of Maine. That’s where they get into trouble.

A road block: Turtles have a biological imperative to migrate South for winter, but Cape Cod reaches into the ocean like a giant hook. They get trapped. “The only way to get out is to go north — but the turtles want to go South,” says Kate Sampson, the sea turtle stranding coordinator for NOAA.

The cold: Turtles are cold-blooded, which means they can’t regulate their own body temperature. As the water gets colder, they try to warm themselves on sandy shallows, but their heart rate slows and they become too cold to move.

No one really knows why more turtles are being cold-stunned on Cape Cod, but it is at least partly due to:

The climate change connection: The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost anywhere else on Earth. Researchers think that:

  • More turtles might be drawn to the Gulf by warmer water. “Historically, it was so cold the turtles would veer away,” says Prescott.
  • Turtles that normally enter the Gulf might be feeding in new locations, ones that are farther north or put them in line to be trapped by the Cape.
  • Warmer waters and abundant food might encourage the turtles to delay their southern migration, increasing the chance they’ll be caught by cooling waters.

“Is climate change playing a role? Absolutely. Is it the only factor? Absolutely not. But it’s certainly a piece of the puzzle,” Sampson says.

The injuries: The seemingly-comatose turtles are tossed by the surf and pounded against the shore. By the time volunteers reach them, they’re more than just hypothermic: some have pneumonia or were hurt by the waves. They have cracked shells, injured eyes, missing fins and are covered in wounds. Many die.

The rescue: Virtually every day in the fall and winter, a team of volunteers combs the beach. Most turtles that make it into human care survive. First, they are triaged at Wellfleet Bay and stabilized at the New England Aquarium. Healthier turtles are packed into banana boxes and flown by volunteers to zoos, aquariums, and turtle sanctuaries until they’re ready to be released in warmer waters.

“Over the years, we’ve sent turtles to pretty much every state from Massachusetts down to Texas,” says Sampson.

What’s next: “Our ultimate goal is to be able to find these turtles sitting on the bottom, before they get injured washing in,” says Prescott. They’re working with NOAA and Wood’s Hole to try to understand where they are between when they hatch and wash ashore.

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