TAMPA — As they do every year, thousands of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles made their way up the Eastern seaboard this summer. Unfortunately, not all made it back as the cold weather set in.
This week, the Florida Aquarium took in 10 victims of what is known as “cold stunning,” a hypothermic reaction to prolonged cold water temperatures that is often fatal. Some 700 turtles succumbed this year and washed ashore or were found helpless at sea; overwhelmed northeastern aquariums sought Florida’s help.
A Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft carried 193 Kemp’s ridleys from Cape Cod, Massachussetts, to Orlando on Tuesday, and the patients were divided among facilities around the state, including Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg and Tampa’s aquarium on Channelside Drive.
“They’re the most critically endangered sea turtle in the world,” said Mike Terrell, director of husbandry for the Aquarium. “They have a place in the ecosystem — just consider them the canary in the coal mine. They are an indicator species of the overall health of an ecosystem. When you start to see fewer and fewer sea turtles, that’s an indication that there could be problems with the local ecosystem.”
That’s what led to the extraordinary effort to save the turtles, Terrell said. If the population was holding steady, nature could simply take its toll, but beach development, plastics and other ocean trash, and human intervention have decimated the sea turtle population.
“The point is to keep the species alive,” said Cristy Barrett, a senior biologist at the Aquarium. “When you lose that many turtles, you lose a lot of genetic diversity. It’s really important to save every single life that we can.”
Barrett and her co-workers keep watch over the 10 turtles in Tampa, providing them with liquids, keeping them lubricated, and tending to their injuries. Cold stunning typically results in a decreased heart rate, decreased circulation, lethargy, shock, and pneumonia or other respiratory distress. A helpless floating turtle is a prime target in the food chain, and some of the turtles bore injuries from predators.
Most Kemp’s ridleys are born along a small stretch of beach in Mexico. Their range is typically limited to the Gulf of Mexico, but some ride the gulf loop current around the tip of Florida and head north. They are reptiles and in cold water have no way to warm themselves.
Researchers are attempting to determine why some don’t make the return trip, said Terrell. Most head back by October. Rescuers hope to save 500 of the 700 that are estimated to have marooned themselves in the Northeast.
Kemp’s ridleys can live for 100 years, and adults can weigh up to 100 pounds.
The turtles that came to Florida were 5 to 15 years old and weighted from 2 to 10 pounds. Home for the 10 now in Tampa are plastic crates lined with warm towels in an Aquarium lab, where they could stay for up to a year. This week, some sat motionless, while a few scampered around their enclosures.
“That’s a good sign,” said Barrett.