Sudden cold snaps in a changing climate are sending deadly mixed signals to the thousands of sea turtles that travel to the waters around Long Island each year, even as a regiment of “citizen scientists” has been activated to save them.
Sea turtle strandings nearly doubled in New York in 2019 as climate change and other factors subjected the animals to deadly stresses, according to the New York Marine Rescue Center, a not-for-profit conservation group based at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead.
But even as the number of young turtles who wind up cold-stunned on primarily East End beaches increases, the rescue group is saving more turtles.
Between Nov. 9 and Dec. 31, a total of 85 sea turtles stranded on New York beaches from Sea Cliff to Montauk. That’s nearly double the 43 turtles that stranded here in 2018. The center covers marine waters for the entire state.
Of the 85 that stranded last year, 32 survived the stresses of injury, infection and cold stunning that ultimately leaves the animals unable to migrate on time, said Maxine Montello, rescue program director for the marine rescue center. Of the 43 that stranded in 2018 only five survived.
The main problem, said Montello, is that local waters haven't been cooling in the gradual way that is typical between fall and winter, and the mostly young turtles that travel to Long Island each year to forage for food lose the common signals that would be their cue to migrate to warmer waters in the south.
Turtles like water temperatures of 68 degrees to travel safely in these waters, but a cold snap can drop it to 55 or below. “We’re starting to lose that slow decrease in temperatures in the fall,” Montello said.
When waters cool to 55 degrees and below, the cold-blooded turtles’ inner organs begin to freeze, and they become buoyant. Unable to swim in the normal way, they are subjected to harsh winds and currents, sometimes thrashed against rocks and, finally, land on the beach. “Many have injuries to their flippers and shells from hitting the rocks coming in,” she said.
If those stresses haven’t killed them, birds and other predators might. One unintended danger is humans who don’t know exactly what to do with the turtles.
Some, said Montello, throw them back into the water — a fatal mistake, since they can’t swim because they are too buoyant. Others attempt to treat the turtles themselves, some warming them in cars or even home baths, also fatal.
It takes five days in gradually warming pools to save a sea turtle. And by then the turtles often have pneumonia or other infections to deal with. Some have injuries from boat strikes and can be tangled in fishing line or hooks.
Despite the larger number of strandings, Montello said several factors have contributed to the increased survival rate of the turtles. There are now up to 100 “citizen scientists” patrolling local beaches during the prime fall-winter migration season when turtles tend to strand. Fifty are on the beach on any given day.
“It’s definitely become a major passion in my life,” said Linda Ingegno, a retired teacher and volunteer from Shirley who covers three miles of beaches two to three days a week during stranding season. “You never know exactly where they are going to show up.”
The patrollers are trained on how to deal with encounters — either calling for a transport or doing so themselves. It’s important not to lower the turtles’ body temperatures too quickly, so they are kept in cool cars.
The second biggest year of turtle strandings was 1995, when 76 were found, nearly all dead or dying.
Anyone who finds a turtle on the beach is advised to move it above the high-tide line, cover it with dry seaweed, and mark it with debris so rescuers can find it once they are called (reach the hotline at 631-369-9829).
Species found on the beach this year include 29 Atlantic green sea turtles, most 3- to 5-year olds, and 53 Kemp’s Ridley turtles, among the most critically endangered in the world. There were also three loggerheads.
Some of the turtles, once healthy, will be transported to Florida. The rest will be turned out in local waters near Tiana Beach in Hampton Bays, when the water reaches 68 degrees, in summer.
The center is run primarily by private donations. The Long Island Aquarium donates a large section of space for rescues, but the annual $1 million operating budget is paid for entirely by small grants, sponsorships and donations.
Since it was founded in 1980, the center has processed 2,092 sea turtles, 781 of which were stranded from cold stunning. Only Massachusetts sees more turtle strandings — hundreds a year, Montello said. Including herself, the center is staffed by two full-time and two part-time employees. Everyone else volunteers their time, on call 24 hours a day, a necessity.
“It’s just critical to get these turtles to us as fast as possible,” Montello said. “If you find a sea turtle on a beach, there’s something wrong with that turtle.”