Marine Mammal Stranding Center officials are asking the public along the shore to keep an eye out, especially in and along back bays, for sea turtles that may be “cold stunned.” Cold stunning refers to the hypothermic reaction that’s caused by being in water that’s too cold, resulting in decreased heart rate and circulation, shock and possible death.
Many times, a turtle may appear dead but is actually cold stunned.
Such was the case when Harvey Cedars artist Cricket McGehee, with her neighbors and friends, spotted a sea turtle floating in a Maiden Lane lagoon by her house the day after Thanksgiving.
As McGehee related, her friend Karen Wainwright saw two people in her neighbor’s yard. They were looking at something floating in the bay. As they crossed into McGehee’s yard, she asked them what was up.
“I got my binoculars to see what was drawing their attention. The turtle was floating on the surface, looking totally dead. Then he slowly lifted his head and took a big breath of air. I’ve seen plenty of turtles in the bay, but nothing like this,” said McGehee.
She called local terrapin rescuer Leslee Ganss, who told her to call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine. “I wasn’t that hopeful we would get a response, (it) being a holiday weekend.”
The two neighbors came back: “a boy named Harry and his father Mike. Harry had first seen the turtle and they had been tracking his progress toward the bulkhead. They had called the police but were happy we had called MMSC.
“Then my friend Mike Walck showed up. Karen at this point was making a video for MMSC to get their advice as to how to proceed. We thought the turtle was injured. His shell had an odd shape. They said we should get a box and some towels to keep the turtle in. Mike from MMSC (yes, three Mikes in total) said he would arrive in about an hour.”
Meanwhile, McGehee and her friend Mike W. carried her dock ladder over to where the turtle was drifting and she climbed down into the water. “I was able to grab the turtle and hand it up to Mike W. The turtle was super sluggish. It was like he was in slow motion or swimming in honey.
“Karen had a plastic bin with towels and Harry and his father helped us get the turtle situated while my and Karen’s dog ran around barking. It was a complete madhouse. But we succeeded in getting the turtle comfortably situated. It was amazing how soft and vulnerable the turtle’s skin was. The skin around its neck was surprisingly delicate; even the scales were shockingly tender. We all had an opportunity to pet and examine this peculiar creature. I have never seen a turtle like this in the bay.”
It was a loggerhead turtle, a threatened and protected species in the Mid-Atlantic, they learned when Mike Kapp, the stranding technician from the MMSC arrived. Kapp explained that the loggerhead, as well as other turtles, should have migrated south by the end of November, but because the water had remained so warm this year, many turtles were getting cold shocked when night temperatures fell to freezing. “He said this time of year the farthest north this guy should have been was South Carolina,” said McGehee.
But Kapp thought the loggerhead’s chances for survival were good.
“Our turtle had an odd sort of cinched waist and he said it may have had a plastic six-pack holder stuck on him when younger, causing a deformity in his shell,” said McGehee. “What a great event to participate in! I think all of us felt tremendously lucky to be able to aid this fabulous beastie.”
Bob Schoelkopf, founding director of the stranding center, said this has been an abnormally active year, with staff members responding to more “cold stunned” sea turtles this season than they have ever seen before.
Schoelkopf said he believes the turtles would have typically followed warmer water south by now but stayed around chasing food into the bays.
On Tuesday, Schoelkopf said the original plan for the loggerhead was to send him south with a number of other cold-stunned turtles, but because this has been such an active cold-stunned season up and down the coast there was no room for them down south. “We sent four up to Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange. We can’t keep them here as we are entering our seal rescue season, and seals and turtles don’t mix well together,” he said.
On Tuesday, Bill Deerr, co-executive officer of sea turtle recovery at Turtle Back Zoo, said the loggerhead from Harvey Cedars was doing well and that two others sent from the MMSC, a critically endangered Ridley Kemp and a green turtle, are also recovering there. A second Ridley Kemp had died in transit, he said.
The loggerhead from Harvey Cedars is estimated to be between 3 and 5 years old, weighs 24 pounds and is eating on his own now. “He’s doing better,” said Deerr. “He had damage to his carapace from fishing line and also to his jaw that possibly was a fishing hook and we are treating that existing infection.
“When the cold-stunned turtles first come in, we have to raise their temperature slowly. And their GI system isn’t functioning, so we feed them light food: soft fish and squid. It’s like when you don’t feel well, you have chicken soup. Later, when he’s better we’ll give him crabs and other fish.”
The turtle will stay in the care of Turtle Back’s Sea Turtle Rescue program for a few months, said Deerr. “But then there’s no reason not to release him back in the wild.”
Deerr suggested going to seaturtlerecovery.org website for updates.
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center asks the public to contact its Brigantine office at 609-266-0538 if a turtle is spotted floating or on a beach, even if it appears to be deceased.
For nearly four decades, the center has been dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sick and injured marine mammals and sea turtles.
To date, staff and volunteer from the MMSC have responded to nearly 5,000 calls for seals, dolphins, whales and sea turtles washed ashore along all of New Jersey’s beaches. The nonprofit is only able to do this work thanks to the support of the community and donations. For more information or to donate, visit mmsc.org.