Stranded and cold-stunned.
This is the fate of most sea turtles when the weather gets cold come November. The abrupt drop in the temperature of the Long Island Sound makes it difficult for sea turtles to adjust.
“When we transition from prolonged summers where it’s still warm, to four inches of snow, that’s misleading to the turtles,” said Maxine Montello, program director of Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. “They’re not able to leave in a timely fashion and get to warmer water quickly, so they end up getting stuck in our bays and in the Sound.”
But members of the Riverhead organization are saving these endangered sea turtles one North Fork beach at a time.
A 30-pound loggerhead sea turtle, named 33, was cold-stunned and floating in the Sound at Iron Pier Beach in Jamesport Wednesday morning when the Riverhead Foundation emergency response team stepped in.
There are four species of endangered sea turtles that can wash up on Long Island beaches: Atlantic green, leatherback, Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead — like 33, who received its name because it’s the 33rd turtle the organization has rescued this season.
Another loggerhead, named 34, was spotted upside down in the Sound at Kenny’s Beach in Southold Wednesday morning.
“That’s a hot spot,” she said. “We get a lot from both of those places — and a lot this year.”
The Foundation stays in touch with “citizen scientists” —trained volunteers — and asks them to patrol the beaches in search for cold-stunned sea turtles. The organization currently has 200 volunteers.
“We train them to know species, to know what a turtle looks like in the field, and what to patrol. If we’re really busy here, we train them to transport the turtles for us,” she said.
Once they arrive at the Foundation, the turtles are placed in tanks of controlled water, which is slowly increased to an ideal temperature of 65 degrees. If the temperature is adjusted too quickly, Ms. Montello said, the sea turtles could be brain damaged. 33 and 34 were placed in neighboring tanks at the Riverhead location.
“We warmed them up, monitor their heart rate, we take notes, and look at their internal temperature, their water temp, their respiration,” she said.
As 33 and 34 readjust, they’ll begin to swim in the tanks, and eventually will be released.
As they get stronger, and they’re swimming on their own, we space out how often we check on them,” she said.
According to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation website, once sea turtles are regarded as healthy according to movement and response time, rescue organizations have two weeks to release them into the wild.
But Ms. Montello said the turtles could not be released on Long Island until the summer months. Consequently, in the winter, the Foundation works with New England Aquarium in Boston and National Aquarium in Baltimore to arrange transportation to Florida where the sea turtles are released.
“We have monthly phone calls that say, ‘I have this many turtles ready,’ and we figure out when to do a trip. It’s usually on the 15th of each month they’ll try to get as many turtles down south as possible,” she explained.
Ms. Montello said the cold-stunned period ends at a different time each year. Last year, the period ended on Christmas Day.
“We’ve had a few reports of people on boats, but really we’re dependent on really strong winds bringing them to the beach and then beach-walkers finding them,” she said.
The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation can be reached at (631) 369-9829 or at their 24-hour rescue hotline: (631) 369-9829.
Photo caption: One of the rescued sea turtles at The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. (Kate Nalepinski photo)