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Seals, cold-stunned sea turtles appear on LI beaches

Maxine Montello, Rescue Program director at the New

Maxine Montello, Rescue Program director at the New York Marine Rescue Center, on Friday holds a cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtle that is being rehabilitated at the center in Riverhead. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Walking a North Shore beach? Look out for young, salad-plate-sized endangered green or Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Suffering from hypothermia, drifting helplessly in the waves or washed ashore, they likely are doomed without expert care.

But with seals, stay away at least three bus lengths or 150 feet if they are on the sand — or risk a fine of up to $100,000 and one year in prison — unless they are clearly ailing, say experts, overloaded with calls to hotlines reporting healthy grey, harp, harbor and hooded seals.

Fearing record strandings of cold-stunned sea turtles, rescuers hope people will to learn how to spot them — and whether a seal truly needs help.

Part of the problem with seals seems to be that New York City folks who moved to Long Island to avoid the pandemic are just not used to seeing them on beaches, especially after summer, experts said.

Erroneously assuming they need help, they are pouring water on them, offering food, trying to push them back into the sea, and even in one case, picking a healthy seal up and driving it to the Riverhead New York Marine Rescue Center, experts said. And some have let their dogs chase seals.

The center says it received 16 reports of such interactions from January to June, more than any recent period. So far this year, the 24-hour hotline has gotten 1,796 calls, also up from last year.

With the outdoors one of the few and most prized refuges from the novel coronavirus, "You have the potential for more people to see these animals who haven’t gone through a winter" out East before, Rob DiGiovanni, chief scientist at the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, a Hampton Bays nonprofit, said by telephone.

As winter begins to bite, seal pups, recently weaned and perhaps not yet skilled at foraging for herring or bunker fish, may be enjoying the same sun, sand and rest drawing people to the shores from Orient Point to Staten Island. Possibly due to climate change, "We’re seeing animals arrive earlier and stay longer," DiGiovanni said.

Finding stranded turtles

Scan for small, perfectly round objects in the waves or perhaps hidden in seaweed on the North Shore; strandings are unusual on the South Shore because once past Montauk they tend to be carried farther out to sea, experts say.

The best time is right after high tide — especially if the winds are coming out of the northwest.

Monday’s strong storm will be of little help. It is blowing up from the south to southeast, across the Sound and toward Connecticut, explained David Radell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Islip office.

Cold-stun season ripples down the Eastern Seaboard from the epicenter — Cape Cod. Its bent-arm shape traps young Kemp’s ridleys and greens in the bay, said Connie Merigo, director of the rescue and rehabilitation program at Boston’s New England Aquarium.

Strandings there are skyrocketing. "We just crossed the 300 mark," already more than all last year, she said.

The 1- to 3-year-old sea turtles may have been floating helplessly since September; they cannot regulate their own temperatures, and succumbing to hypothermia, dehydration and starvation set in. "They become buoyant, and kind of float at the surface," said Maxine Montello, Rescue Program director at the Riverhead marine center, borne along wherever the winds and tides take them.

In 2014, more than 1,000 of these two species stranded in Massachusetts; 690 were alive, Merigo said. Two factors seen then — mild autumn temperatures on land and strandings before water temperatures fall below the usual benchmark of 50 degrees — recurred this year, she said.

The Riverhead rescue is caring for a dozen Kemp’s ridley youngsters: two Long Islanders, "Slash" and "Axel" — this year’s naming theme is rock and roll — and 10 from the New England Aquarium, to prevent it from becoming overloaded, officials said.

Slash’s plight is particularly perilous; a boat strike probably badly damaged her shell, which protects her internal organs, and broke a flipper rescuers hope to splint, Montello said.

This youngster was spotted on Nov. 4 by someone walking along the shore near Eatons Neck, a hook-shaped peninsula on the North Shore about 55 miles east of Manhattan by car. "A kayaker was able to grab the animal," said Montello. Axel was found in Montauk Lake on Nov. 24.

With the turtles typically weighing just a kilogram or two, experts say it is just about impossible to figure out their age or sex. One kilogram is 2.2 pounds.

Adults apparently have learned when to head south to warmer waters. "It’s pretty weird to get an adult," Merigo said. "They’re savvier."

Spotting the sick seal

Look for alertness and what Montello calls a banana shape, with both the head and tail raised.

Seals may try to scare off people — and any dogs — by growling and displaying their sharp claws by scratching their faces or bodies. "Those are all kind of cues to leave them alone," she said. If a seal does not instantly rouse, it may have simply fallen into a deep sleep. Also, wild animals can bite.

A lone seal is not a sign of trouble; recently weaned pups may be solitary. Until they are sexually mature, adult males may attack them if they join a herd, she said. "They’re allowed to be alone; they’re allowed to haul out."

Unless a seal is encrusted with sand, has a runny nose and eyes, is lying flat, unmoving and unresponsive, has bite wounds or is caught in plastic or fishing line or barbs or otherwise injured, they should not be disturbed, rescuers said. "In the end, most people are trying to help," said Montello. The four-member team does, however, want people to call if in doubt. "If you feel like an animal is in distress, call the 24-hour hotline; we ask for photos and location." The hotline is 631-369-9829; the center's website is nymarinerescue.org.

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