Slow and easy may win the race for the tortoise in Aesop's Fable, but when the weather -- and the water -- turns cold, it can be fatal for real live sea turtles.
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On Sunday staff from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation (RFMRP) recovered three cold- stunned sea turtles. According to Rescue Program Director Kim Durham, two juvenile Green Sea Turtles were rescued in Bridgehampton and Amagansett. A third, a Kemp's Ridley, was recovered in Glen Cove.
On November 20, still another turtle was discovered and rescued from Gardiner's Bay in East Hampton. Less than a foot long, the small, six-pound Atlantic Green Sea Turtle was observed by residents who were walking the beach at Louse Point. It was initially seen in tidal waters, Durham reported, and was, at that point, the second cold-stunned turtle treated by RFMRP.
A physical exam revealed the little guy's (or gal's) body temperature was 11 degrees Celsius, when 23 degrees is the norm. Treatment for hypothermia was commenced and as of last week, the turtle's condition was described as "guarded."
"The ability to intervene and save this turtle's life is due entirely to the actions taken by the beach walkers who responded to the turtle and called our hotline immediately for instructions. The deaths of these animals are preventable if they are reported," said Durham.
The RFMRP rescue program is gearing up for a busy winter and hoping communities will get involved. They're asking for volunteers to patrol area beaches and report any sea turtles found to the 24-hour rescue hotline (631-369-9829) right away.
"Even if these animals appear dead," Durham said, "Proper emergency care could save their lives." People who find cold-stunned turtles shouldn't try to warm them up, though, as it's a delicately timed procedure. Warming them too quickly can lead to shock.
Cold-stunning, also known as hypothermia, is a condition that threatens the lives of many sea turtles each year. A dramatic and sudden decrease in water temperature renders the animals unable to move. Because sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles, they lack the ability to regulate their own body temperatures. Instead, their environment, in this case the ocean or bay, serves as the regulator.
When the water temperature reaches 50 degrees, Durham explained, sea turtles begin to succumb to cold-stunning. Seemingly paralyzed by the frigid waters, they eventually stop eating and swimming and are soon at the mercy of wave and tidal action. They can't escape the cold water and migrate to warmer climes. When stunned, they can appear dead even when they're still alive. Once they wash up on beaches, it's a race against time to rescue them.
Every year, RFMRP solicits volunteers to patrol area beaches searching for endangered and threatened species. While they can be found at any time, the chances of discovering a cold-stunned turtle are greater at low tide, particularly after storms or cold snaps. They could be floating in the water, anywhere on the beach from the dune to the water line and even buried beneath dried seaweed.
Three species are most likely to be found in this region. They are the Green Turtle, which has a small head and a brown, oval-shaped shell, the Kemp's Ridley, which has a heart-shaped shell and a large head, and the Loggerhead, which also has an oval shaped shell and a very large head.
According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy website, "The ability of a sea turtle to migrate hundreds (and occasionally thousands) of miles from its feeding ground to its nesting beach is one of the most remarkable acts in the animal kingdom. That adult females return faithfully to nest on the very beach where they were born makes the feat even more amazing.
"Research into where and how sea turtles migrate has been a focus of scientists for decades. The information collected is vital to the development of conservation strategies for the species. We now know that sea turtles undergo migration throughout their lives, beginning with the first frenzied swim as a hatchling."