After a fraught several months of "thawing out" and recuperating, four lucky turtles got to go home last month.
In a ceremony at Hampton Bays’ Ponquogue Beach, three Kemp’s ridley sea turtles dubbed Oreo, Mint Chip and Rocky Road, along with Coconut, a green sea turtle, started their pilgrimage back to the Atlantic Ocean.
The hard-shell quartet was rescued by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation during the waning months of 2017 at beaches in Northport, Southold, East Hampton and Amagansett, said Maxine Montello, rescue program director for the foundation, the primary rehabilitation center for turtles and seals in New York. Each year, the rescued animals are named using a common theme. This year’s theme? Ice cream flavors.
COLD STUNNED AND BEACHED
Beach walkers found the turtles, all suffering from hypothermia, and called the foundation’s hotline, which responds to cold-stunned animals from late November through January.
“These guys succumbed to the cold snaps that we have here in New York,” said Montello. “One day it’s warm out, and then all of a sudden it’s snowing the next day. And, because they’re reptiles, they’re not able to regulate their internal temperature, so they start to slow down and they’re unable to get out of the Long Island Sound or the Great Peconic Bay.”
The wind, Montello added, brings the turtles to the beaches. There, they get stranded on the shore, along the rocks or in the surf. Some turtles come into the foundation with body temperatures below 50 degrees, Montello said.
The lowest water temperature to which they should be exposed to is 68 degrees, Montello said. “They can handle it for a few days, but that long-term exposure really slows them down."
Sea turtles forage around Long Island throughout summer and early fall, but should be swimming southward into subtropical waters, like those around Florida and Texas, once late autumn comes.
“They should have gotten out, but because of the cold snaps, they tend to get stuck and they’re not able to get out of the Sound or Bay fast enough.”
Once the turtles are at the Riverhead facility, volunteers start warming them up, putting them in rooms with progressively warmer temperatures to slowly raise their internal temperatures.
Gradually, they introduce the turtles to water and observe how they breathe, move their flippers and do the things turtles are supposed to do. Injured or more sickly turtles get extra treatment.
“We work closely with our volunteer vets that help us pick a treatment plan for each animal,” said Montello, who joined the rescue team in March 2017.
This year, the Riverhead foundation responded to about 40 cold-stunned turtles, 19 of which came in alive. After rehab, 12 healthy sea turtles were released.
Some don’t make it past the first 24 hours because they can’t handle the decline in temperature or their injuries.
“Once they’re deemed healthy by our vets, we are able to release them as soon as possible,” noted Montello, adding that they’re generally released in July and August, months when the water is at least 72 degrees.
New York ranks No. 2, just behind Massachusetts, in responses to cold-stunned animals, with numbers ranging from 10 to 76 turtles each year, Montello said.
Unfortunately, people often walk right past turtles they believe are dead, though they are actually just frozen.
“We are spending extra time training the general public to go out and patrol,” Montello said. “I think general awareness has helped with getting these animals where they need to be.”
Every sea turtle that leaves the Riverhead facility receives two silver flipper tags and a passive integrated transponder tag, which is placed under their skin. If any turn up at other beaches or at another facility, people can call the foundation to let them know where they’re found. Tracking the turtles helps the foundation assess the efficacy of the release program
A select few get costly satellite tags. This year, Phish Food, a three-flippered green sea turtle, was the lucky satellite recipient.
“He came in one of the heaviest turtles that we had this past season, and he left one of the heaviest turtles, so we don’t think that missing leg is really affecting him," Montello said. "But, it’s definitely good to learn how he’s going out into the wild after he’s been with us.” Montello explained that Phish Food came in at 2.8 kilograms, or about 6 pounds, and was released at 6.9 kilograms, a little over 15 pounds. The average cold-stunned turtle comes in at 1 to 2 kilograms, between 2 and a bit over 4 pounds.
"Adopting" a rescue
Teacher Tracy Jacquemain, of Islip, was on hand to watch the final August release. Her fourth-grade class at Parliament Place School in North Babylon adopted Mint Chip, raising $100 by collecting 2,000 water bottles. They learned valuable lessons in recycling, science and math — for example, that 2,000 bottles at 5 cents each equals $100. Such donations are used to help pay for food and other items involved in the turtles' care.
In return for its donation, the class got to tour the rehab center in June and meet all the turtles and seals, as well as the volunteers who help in their recovery.
Watching Mint Chip swim away after his (or her) long ordeal was truly amazing, Jacquemain said, adding, “I cried.”
How to report stranded animals
Most cold-stunnings occur from late November through January. To report any kind of stranded marine animal, call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation hotline at 631-369-9829.