Rare, ‘cold-stunned’ sea turtles rescued from Cape Cod


EASTHAM, Mass. (WPRI) — Three critically endangered sea turtles were found washed ashore on two Cape Cod beaches Wednesday by volunteers with the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay and Wildlife Sanctuary.

The discovery of the stranded Kemp’s ridley sea turtles marks the beginning of the annual “cold-stunning” season, according to Sarah Perez, a biologist at the New England Aquarium.

Perez said a turtle is considered “cold-stunned” when its internal temperature drops well below 75 degrees. She said most, if not all, of these turtles develop pneumonia because of the sudden drop in internal temperature.

Once they’re “cold-stunned,” Perez said the sea turtles lose metabolic function, meaning they can’t swim. That’s how they end of stranded on the beaches, she explained.

“What we see is that they tend to float and the winds bring them to shore and wash up,” Perez said.

Each year when the weather gets cooler, Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay and Wildlife Sanctuary volunteers spend time combing the beaches after high tide in case any turtles wash ashore.

Any alive turtles they find, according to Perez are evaluated and transported to the New England Aquarium treatment facility in Quincy.

“Cold-stunning” season typically begins in late October, when the water temperatures begin to drop off, but it’s dependent upon each year’s weather pattern.

Perez said unfortunately, the number of deceased turtles found typically rises as December arrives and the colder air settles in.

Last year, Perez said their facility treated and released 569 sea turtles.

The number fluctuates depending on the weather patterns throughout the season. If there’s a year where temperatures are above average and the drop off in water temperatures is more gradual, there won’t be as many “cold-stunned” turtles. But if temperatures drop off quicker both on land and in the ocean, the chances turtles will become “cold-stunned” will increase.

The rehab process that the New England Aquarium performs can take up to an entire year to complete, Perez said, though if a turtle improves quickly, it could only take a couple of months.

Once the turtles’ internal body temperature reaches 75 degrees again, they are transported to other rehab facilities prior to being released.

The fully rehabilitated turtles are typically released back into the ocean in October to make room for other turtles in need of help.

Perez said the entire rehabilitation process is extremely rewarding.

“Most of them would die, and so just giving them that second chance and slowly warming them and getting them ready to be released is super rewarding,” she said.

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