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Turtles stranding at record pace

QUINCY — With winter just a few weeks away, the 97-pound loggerhead sea turtle should be living it up somewhere in the warm Gulf of Mexico, or perhaps the Caribbean

Instead, the young male — less than 5 years old — is in a plastic tub filled with a few inches of water at New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center , fighting for his life.

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“He’s reacting when I tickle his neck, but he’s not breathing at all,” Carla Melucci, one of the volunteers at the center, said as she massaged under the hypothermic turtle’s head and tapped on its shell, looking for any reaction. Turtles can get so cold, some will only average one heartbeat per minute. Yet even those that appear lifeless can be coaxed back to health again.

“It’s better than him being limp,” she said.

The large loggerhead was among 22 hypothermic sea turtles brought to the care center Thursday, bringing the week’s total tally to 67. Since about the middle of October, the Quincy center has received a total of 107 hypothermic loggerheads, Kemp’s ridley, and green sea turtles in what is shaping out to be a record breaking stranding season for the endangered turtles.

“We don’t think we’re at the halfway point now. We think we’re going to get a lot more turtles,” said Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium, adding that an average season can yield 25 to 60 sea turtles, and go to 200 when it’s above normal.

Stranding season, usually between mid-October to the end of December, occurs when inexperienced juvenile sea turtles migrate up the East Coast in the spring primarily to feed on crab and become trapped in Cape Cod Bay, unable to navigate the 20 to 25 miles north past the tip of the Cape to swim south for the winter, LaCasse said.

‘If they can’t figure the navigation out of Cape Cod Bay . . . it’s a deadly bucket.’

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“If they can’t figure the navigation out of Cape Cod Bay . . . it’s a deadly bucket,” he said.

The cold-blooded reptiles, whose ideal body temperature is in the 70-degree range, will assume the temperature of their environment. As cold weather sets in and water temperatures drop, the sea turtles become hypothermic and weak, eventually ceasing physical activity and floating along the currents.

Depending on the winds, the immobile turtles will wash ashore during high tide. This year, the winds are good for rescuing turtles, said Bob Prescott, director of the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. The organization has a team of volunteers and staff who use a directional wind formula to pinpoint exactly where sea turtles will wash up on beaches.

“It’s been a warm year and a very windy year, so we’re getting a lot of turtles with high survivorship rate now,” Prescott said.

At the care center in Quincy, there have been only two deaths this season, despite the influx of sea turtles coming through the doors of the former shipyard.

“It’s such a huge event. It’s the equivalent of a downed plane,” said Connie Merigo, head of the aquarium’s marine rescue program. “We’re triaging, making sure we keep them alive and then go back to fine-tune them if you will.”

Once turtles — half of which come in with pneumonia — arrive, workers begin the lengthy process of re-warming them at a rate of five degrees a day. Some will require a few months of rehabilitation to treat infections and wounds. As turtles become healthy, they are brought to warmer locales where they are released.

At 107 turtles, the center is beyond its capacity of 100.

Bruce Hurter, a retired psychiatrist from Wellfleet, was the Audubon volunteer who brought in the 97-pound loggerhead struggling to breathe Thursday. He hung around as volunteers tried to tap and massage a breath out of it and two other loggerheads.

“All of these guys are endangered, so it’s important work,” he said. “I hope they make it.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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