BARNSTABLE, MA (Sept. 11, 2013).
An approximately 650 pound leatherback sea turtle that stranded at low tide in an isolated area of Sandy Neck Beach Park in Barnstable Wednesday morning was treated medically and released back into a rising tide in the early afternoon. New England Aquarium staff are optimistic about her prognosis, but they are seeking the public’s help should boaters or beach walkers re-sight the five foot long, black, soft-shelled sea turtle as she is swimming in Cape Cod Bay or near land.
Photo: Mass Audubon/ Ron Kielb
The turtle was discovered high and dry by Sandy Neck staff in the mid-morning. Rangers called the Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay, which acts as first responders for sea turtle strandings on Cape Cod. They in turn called the New England Aquarium for medical support from their rescue biologists and veterinarian. Given the isolated location, rescuers were ferried to the site by Barnstable harbormaster and a Good Samaritan private boater.
With near record heat and an exposed marine reptile in the baking sun, rescuers covered the turtle with wet sheets to keep the animal cooler. They also moved her on to a dolphin stretcher to lift her, if necessary, and to also help contain the restless creature while they treated her. They found tags on the flippers of the adult female indicating that she had previously nested on a beach in Trinidad. That large island off the northeastern coast of South America is one of the principal egg laying sites for this highly endangered species.
For the Aquarium medical staff, they needed to make a crucial and time sensitive evaluation as to how sick was the turtle and why it might have stranded. Both Sandy Neck and Mass Audubon staff knew that once into this tidal backwater, many marine animals become confused. For a leatherback feeding on sea jellies, that would be even more likely as this species of sea turtle is generally in the open ocean and is less familiar with the fluctuations of tides.
For Connie Merigo, head of the Aquarium’s marine animal rescue team, she needed to determine was this a reasonably healthy animal that accidentally stranded in an unfamiliar habitat or a sick turtle that was debilitated and had essentially washed ashore. A moderately healthy animal could be released on the incoming tide while an ill turtle could be transported to the Aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Quincy.
At about 650 pounds, the leatherback was slightly underweight and not as fat as biologists would expect at this late point of the summer feeding season. The Aquarium’s rescue biologists took vital signs and drew blood. They entered a sample into a portable blood analyzer. Head veterinarian and noted turtle specialist Dr. Charles Innis looked at the results. To his slight surprise, the sea turtle’s blood values were within normal range. This turtle’s best chance at survival was to be released but with a little medical boost to help combat stress of the stranding and other existing minor medical maladies. Dr. Innis gave the turtle a long-lasting anti-biotic, anti-inflammatory and vitamin complement.
As the tide slowly rose and made the massive turtle more buoyant, about ten Barnstable, Mass Audubon and Aquarium staff grabbed the handles of the nylon stretcher and moved her out to deeper water. On command, one side of the stretcher was dropped, water flooded in and the turtle swam out into deeper water. She took a breath and dove – always a good sign. A couple of staff sighted her further down the inlet. A nervous elation percolated through the rescuers – excited, proud but still concerned that this important animal survive so that it might one day this winter lay eggs on a beach in Trinidad.
The successful treatment and release of live leatherback sea turtles is an extremely rare event. Live strandings of this ocean-going turtle are very uncommon, but also little was known of their physiology and how to treat them since they have never been successfully kept in an aquarium anywhere. A few years ago, Cara Dodge, a former federal sea turtle official, enrolled Innis and Merigo in a field research study to temporarily live capture leatherbacks at sea, take samples and build more knowledge of their physiology.
Strangely enough, once published last summer, that information has been used twice to save live stranded leatherbacks. Last September, another leatherback of the same size stranded in Truro but was near death. After spending 48 hours in treatment with the Aquarium, the turtle was equipped with a satellite tag, released and successfully migrated down the East Coast.