Cold-stunned turtles washing up on North Fork shores

BARBARA TERRANOVA PHOTO | A dead loggerhead sea turtle recently found on a sound-shore beach may have lingered in local waters too long and missed the opportunity to head south with the change of the seasons.

A dead loggerhead sea turtle recently found on a Sound beach may have lingered in local waters too long during the autumn change of seasons.

If so, the animal wasn’t the only one.
The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation has brought in 30 “cold-stunned” turtles since the beginning of the fall. Of those, 10 have survived and are being kept in tanks at the facility’s base at Atlantis Marine World Aquarium for release next summer.

All were found either along the Sound or near Montauk on the South Fork, said Rob DiGiovanni, foundation director and senior biologist.
At 100 pounds, the loggerhead found near Goldsmith Inlet in Peconic on Friday is much larger than the kinds of turtles usually found on North Shore beaches at this time of the year, according to Mr. DiGiovanni. In fact, it’s one of the largest examples of that species stranded in New York waters in the past several years.

The foundation’s tanks now hold Kemp’s Ridley and green turtles, each weighing no more than eight to 10 pounds.

“The animals we get in our waters now are juveniles,” Mr. DiGiovanni said. “They hatch in southern latitudes and spend much of their time in the mid-Atlantic feeding on floating sargassum seaweed. What we think happens is they come into New England and New York waters when they become bottom-feeders.”

An endangered species, Kemp’s Ridleys are the smallest sea turtles, growing no more than two to three feet long.

Peter Terranova of Peconic came across the big loggerhead as he strolled along the edge of Goldsmith Inlet. Interestingly, it was his wife, Barbara, who attended a Riverhead Foundation seminar on cold stunning two years ago and later volunteered to be an observer who regularly walks the beaches from October to January looking for beached turtles. She was at work when her husband found the creature.

“My children thought … that this was the foundation’s way of getting the beach cleaned because I would clean the beaches as I walk them,” she said this week.

“It took three men to load it into the truck,” Ms. Terranova said. “Its head was the size of a large coconut.”

During the summer, water temperatures in the Sound can climb into the 70s. The foundation begins to receive reports of cold-stunned animals when the water temperature falls to about 50 degrees, said Mr. DiGiovanni. In mid-Sound, the water is currently about 46 degrees.

The cold-stun season begins around Thanksgiving and runs through December. After that, it’s usually too cold for the animals to survive.

Cold-stunned turtles will stop eating and go wherever the tide takes them. Since northerly winds are predominant at this time of year, most of those animals come ashore on north-facing beaches.

The animals may appear dead, but once they are brought in, some begin to show signs of life. Anyone who comes across a beached sea turtle should immediately call the foundation’s stranding hot line at 369-9829.

“Every stranding is different,” Mr. DiGiovanni said. “Make sure the animal is secure on the beach and shield it from the wind so it doesn’t get colder. There’s a chance the animal is still alive and might be able to be revived.

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