Cold-stunned Turtles Find Friends Across the East

By Christine Harris

Most people think of sea turtles as exotic creatures you encounter while snorkeling off the shores of tropical islands, but many sea turtles will journey as far north as the Gulf of Maine. In fact, leatherback sea turtles will travel as far north as the Arctic Sea in pursuit of jellyfish. Like all reptiles, sea turtles are cold-blooded and abrupt decreases in water temperature can leave them stunned. This is what happens to dozens of sea turtles that wash ashore on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay each fall in Massachusetts.

An adult Kemp's ridley sea turtle.  Photo courtesy of USFWS.

An adult Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

This fall has seen the most stranded turtles of any fall on record. The turtles are juveniles that rode the jet stream northward and have been foraging in the area during the warmer summer months. As the temperatures cool the turtles begin to head south but many of them become trapped in Cape Cod Bay. A cold snap in early November quickly cooled water temperatures cold-stunning many turtles. When they become stunned the turtles can no longer swim and are carried along by wind and currents. Fortunately, coordinated efforts from volunteers, non-profit and government organizations, and numerous facilities in Florida, North Carolina and beyond have saved hundreds of these doomed turtles.

Between November 3 and November 26 the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary with the help of countless volunteers and the Cape Cod National Seashore recovered over 1,000 sea turtles, both alive and dead. Of those turtles, around 600 were found alive. About eighty percent of the turtles recovered were Kemp’s ridleys, the world’s most critically-endangered sea turtle species, while the remainder were green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles, also endangered species. Even a couple of unusual hybrid sea turtles have been found. Scientists are hopeful that the fact that such large numbers of juvenile Kemp’s ridleys have washed up could be an indicator that the species is being protected on its nesting grounds on the Gulf of Mexico.

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

A Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

With such a large number of turtles, the small Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was soon teeming with chilled turtles. Typically stranded turtles found by the Sanctuary are brought to the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility in Quincy, Massachusetts to continue their recovery. With the unprecedented influx of cold-stunned turtles this fall, the New England Aquarium facility quickly filled and other rehab options were needed. Fortunately for hundreds of turtles, aquariums and rehab facilities across the East stepped up to take them in.

In the early morning hours of November 26, 193 Kemp’s ridleys that were at the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility were loaded into padded boxes and driven to Joint Base Cape Cod. There the turtles were loaded onto a Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft that flew them to Orlando, Florida. After arriving in Orlando the turtles were distributed to seven marine animal rehab facilities in Northern and Central Florida. The same morning another fifty Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles were brought to Norwood, Massachusetts where a private pilot met them and flew them to North Carolina to be distributed to aquariums.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Though the influx has slowed, turtles are continuing to be found on Cape Cod Bay beaches regularly though at this point most that are washing up are dead. A dedicated group of people continue to survey the beaches daily in search of any survivors.

Who Takes Care of Orphaned, Injured or Kidnapped Wildlife?

Photo courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia

Photo courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia

Spring is the time of year when many young animals are born or hatched.  It is also a time of year when adult animals are much more active and prone to accidents or injuries.  This creates a remarkable and swift increase in the number of animals being cared for by wildlife rehabilitators.

Wildlife rehabilitators are focused on and committed to the treatment and subsequent release of orphaned, kidnapped or injured native wildlife.  Though the profession is young by comparison to other animal related vocations, it is one that has evolved to include a global exchange of specialized data and standards of care.

In 1982, The National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA) was formed when 262 people from 22 states gathered for the very first National Wildlife Rehabilitation Symposium.  Wildlife rehabilitators came together in Naperville, Illinois, hosted by the staff of Willowbrook Wildlife Haven, out of a desire to form a national organization and establish national standards for the care of wild animals.

Are you wondering why there would be a need for national organizations and global standards in caring for injured and orphaned native wildlife?  Consider this: In 2007 alone, approximately 64,000 birds, 39,000 mammals, and 2,300 reptiles and amphibians were treated by 343 NWRA survey respondents. The overall rate of release back to the wild was 60% for birds, 72% for mammals, and 69% for reptiles and amphibians.  Also, 252,000 wildlife-related telephone calls were handled, and over half of the survey respondents provided wildlife education programs to the public, reaching an estimated 839,000 people.

In 1984 the NWRA had a membership of 221 people; by 2009, the membership reached almost 1,800 people from all over the world.

According to a recent NWRA membership survey, 30% of the members are veterinarians, vet students, or veterinary technicians. Other members are affiliated with humane societies or zoos, or are educators, biologists or merely concerned citizens of the world who volunteer their time and resources to the care of wildlife.


This sort of work is not for the faint of heart.  More than 75% of the animals cared for by NWRA members are adversely affected by human activities such as nest tree destruction, vehicle collisions, unrestrained pets, illegal or legal wild “pet” trading, intentional or unintentional poisonings through events such as contamination, window collisions, and non-target trapping or shooting.


In wildlife rehabilitation, on a daily basis, healthy juvenile animals are brought in as “orphaned” during the spring and summer.  They are quickly labeled as “kidnapped” because a human made the false assumption that the animal was alone merely because they didn’t see an adult animal.  Most animals do not tend to their young constantly the way humans do.  If you do not see an adult animal, it is likely either out gathering food or hiding and waiting for the scary human to go away. Don’t be a kidnapper.

The best thing you can do when you see animals, including baby animals that are not obviously sick, injured or abandoned is to leave them alone.  And make sure your children and pets leave them alone as well.

It is okay to watch the animal from afar, far enough away that the parents will feel comfortable tending to their babies, if appropriate.  Think of it as when you were taught to ride a bicycle for the first time.  Eventually you peddled away from the grown up that was teaching you, but they were still watching.  Imagine the horror the adult would have experienced if a big monster came and snatched you away, just because they thought you were unsupervised.

Baby Bird care

For guidelines on how to determine if an animal needs human intervention, visit The National Wildlife Rehabilitator’s Association.  There are excellent guidelines for determining if baby mammals and baby birds need rescuing. There is also helpful information for finding wildlife rehabilitators in your area.

Another Perspective on Sea World, Orcas and Captive Animals

Rehab dolphin tank at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rehab dolphin tank at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

By Maymie Higgins

The movie Blackfish is set to be released on DVD on Tuesday, November 12.  As much debate as the CNN airings and film festival screenings have prompted, the DVD release will likely create a resurgence of debate, anger, accusations and activism as yet unseen as it pertains to the topic of orcas in captivity, particularly at the Sea World parks.  I have not yet watched the documentary, preferring to wait until I could control the pace of viewing on my home DVD player, allowing for periods of bawling, meditation and sips of chamomile tea.  As an animal advocate and a person whose entire existence revolves around engaging the masses on a plethora of conservation topics, I probably do not have the emotional fortitude the movie requires.  And yet, I already know I will remain a supporter of Sea World even after seeing what I expect will be horrifying, gut-wrenching and panic-inducing images.

Rescued sea turtle at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rescued sea turtle at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

The issue of animals in captivity is a sophisticated issue and cannot be easily compartmentalized into easy solutions such as “No Orcas in Captivity!”  Even if there is a movement towards having no orcas in captivity, it will be a long time before the last captive orca has lived out its full life expectancy.  The concept that captive animals, particularly those born in captivity, should be “set free” is an incomplete, poorly thought out concept.  Animals must have hunting, foraging, mating and many other behavioral skills in order to survive in the wild.  Most captive born animals never learned all of those skills.  Many wild born, now captive animals are in zoos and aquariums because they cannot survive in the wild after recovering from injuries.  Did you know that modern zoos and aquariums are often sanctuary for injured animals that would have otherwise been euthanized?

Rescued manatees at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rescued manatees at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Sea World has saved far more animals than it has destroyed as they are on the ground, every day, rescuing and rehabilitating dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and dozens of species of birds, to name only a few.  I have personally viewed the rehabilitation facilities in Orlando, Florida.  From my perspective as a Registered Nurse and with some experience in small mammal and passerine wildlife rehabilitation, I was very impressed with the state of the art facilities and loving care provided.  In 2012, more than 24 million guests visited Sea World parks, generating millions of dollars of donations, 100 percent of which are used for the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund for wildlife conservation efforts. Then there are the intangible contributions such as all the conservation education activities that Sea World provides both inside and outside their parks, fostering the steward in both young and old.  For orcas in particular, Sea World has conducted a significant amount of published research that has benefitted both captive and wild orcas.  And just to be clear, Sea World has no involvement in capturing wild orcas now.  As is true for many zoos and aquariums, most of their animals were born in captivity.

Rescued skate at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rescued skate at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

 The response to Blackfish should not be to shun Sea World.  Rather, keep visiting Sea World, make donations to their conservation fund, and support your local zoo and aquarium in their conservation efforts.  Consider this: if zoos and aquariums lose visitors, they lose revenue necessary to provide the best animal care possible.  The zoo and aquarium industry (and yes, it is an industry) is here to stay but that is not necessarily bad news.  For many species, it has already been good news.  For example, the black-footed ferret, red wolf and California condor would all be extinct now were it not for U.S. AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.  Therefore, do not punish Sea World for their past sins.  Instead, praise them for their ongoing efforts to improve the way they care for captive animals and their safety measures to protect employees entrusted with animal care.  In all areas of life, it is far more productive to reward good behavior than to punish bad behavior.