Sea Turtles Stranded on Cape Cod Beaches
National Geographic News, Dec.23, 1999
Biologists, veterinarians, and volunteers are reeling from an unprecedented rash of sea turtle strandings on the shores of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The highly endangered animals began washing up on the beaches of the Cape in November. By mid-December, 218 sea turtles, some dead and others alive, had washed ashore. A majority of the turtles (203 at last count) are juvenile Kemp's ridley, the most endangered of the sea turtle species. They were suffering from a condition known as "cold-stunned," which occurs when the water temperature drops and the turtles become so cold that they go into shock. Most years, the turtles leave the Cape before the water gets too cold.
Strandings are not unusual; about 17 turtles wash ashore every year. It's the sheer number that has rescue workers scrambling. "This stranding is so much bigger, more drastic and much more tragic than in previous years," says Cynthia Smith, an intern veterinarian with the New England Aquarium. The turtles that have been plucked from the beaches alive suffer from a variety of ills, including hypothermia, dehydration, pneumonia, and a deadly bacterial infection called sepsis. The huge number of sick turtles has overwhelmed the New England Aquarium, and nearly a hundred have been flown to five other rehabilitation centers in Florida. The sea turtles that are successfully rehabilitated will be
released back into the wild sometime during the spring and summer. It's unclear to scientists why the turtles aren't leaving the area before the water gets too cold. As reptiles, their body temperature is essentially the same as the water temperature; optimally 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (15-21 Celsius). The temperature of the stranded turtles after rescue is between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit (7-13 Celsius), according to Smith. "We don't know if they lose direction, get too cold too fast, didn't get out [of the North Atlantic] in time or are confused about the temperatures," she said.