After undergoing five months of rehabilitation at the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, eight of 11 rescued sea turtles are ready to be released into warmer waters.
The turtles became stranded off the coast of Cape Cod in November and were suffering from a severe form of hypothermia known as cold stunning when they were brought to the center. As sea turtles begin their migration south, Cape Cod acts as a barrier to some of the turtles, making it impossible for them to escape the cold winter waters. They are found during routine searches, which begin in October.
On Sunday morning, volunteers laughed and joked as they made the final preparations for the drive to Jacksonville, Florida, where the turtles will be set free on Monday.
The Kemp’s ridley sea turtles seem just as excited—their flippers flapped wildly while their measurements and pictures are taken. President and executive director of the center Kathryn A. Zagzebski said they do this when animals first arrive at the center, when they leave, and about once a week during the interim. “This way we’re able to track the progress that they make while they’re here,” she said. Helping with the process was AmeriCorps Cape Cod volunteer Shawn McMahon, who said that when the turtles first arrived they were more subdued due to the extent of their injuries. “Now, they’re super active and ready to go,” he said.
Initially treated at New England Aquarium, the turtles arrived in Buzzards Bay still suffering from severe illness. “Turtles get sick slowly and heal slowly,” Ms. Zagzebski said. “The effects of cold stunning may not show up right away. It’s a long healing process and has varied from turtle to turtle.” In addition to being stunned, some suffered broken bones and joint damage. The turtles arrived with blackened shells, sunken eyes, and thin necks. They all received subcutaneous fluids for re-hydration, regular doses of antibiotics, and a lot of cleaning.
A fundraiser for the rehabilitation and release of the turtles allowed the opportunity to sponsor and name them. Ms. Zagzebski gifted a name to her 6-year-old nephew, who chose Raphael after the Ninja Turtle.
To ensure a safe trip for the turtles, each is put into a crate lined with towels for padding as well as a rolled towel to protect its bottom shell from bruising. They are rubbed with a water-based lubricant and given water-based eye ointment to prevent them from drying out over the course of the trip. “They breathe air so it’s fine for them to be out of water, but over an extended time their shells and skin can dry out,” Ms. Zagzebski explained. Four drivers will make the 24-hour trip in one vehicle and will be stopping every few hours to make sure the turtles are doing well. Additionally, each turtle is outfitted with flipper tags and a microchip so they can be identified if they ever make their way back to Cape Cod.
Wendy Wyman, a volunteer, had no problem offering her 2013 Toyota 4Runner for the job. This is her first time making the drive for the release after being inspired from seeing pictures of last year’s event. “I’m excited,” said Ms. Wyman. “You put all this work into getting them well again. You hate seeing them in the tanks.” Animal care and facilities coordinator Kate Shaffer agrees. “Seeing them go back into the ocean makes everything—the money you’ve spent, the time you’ve spent—worthwhile,” she said.
The car is equipped with a medical kit and a veterinarian is on call. The center also has connections with turtle rehabilitation facilities in every state on their journey. The volunteers will be releasing the turtles as soon as they arrive on site in Jacksonville.
The three remaining turtles are still in the process of recovering from their injuries and are anticipated to be well enough for release in the next two to three months.
“Kemp’s ridley turtles are the most endangered sea turtle in the world and are also the ones most frequently stranded on the Cape,” Ms. Zagzebski said. By the time they are ready to be released back into the wild, they are more likely to survive and repopulate, which in turn benefits the ecosystem. “We do this for the animals, but it’s great to know that we’re helping the environment as well,” Ms. Zagzebski said.