Seven more stranded loggerhead sea turtles were delivered to the New England Aquarium Thursday from Massachusetts beaches, bringing the year’s tally for the endangered species to 75.
This year, the aquarium has taken in a total of 230 rescued sea turtles, said spokesman Tony LaCasse. An average season, he said, would normally yield 25 to 60 sea turtles.
“The record has already been smashed in terms of total number of turtles this season,” LaCasse said. “The real oddity is the sheer number of loggerheads. The previous record for loggerheads was in the teens, and we are now at 75.”
Stranding season, which usually begins around mid-
October and ends at the end of December, occurs when inexperienced juvenile sea turtles travel up the East Coast in the spring primarily to feed on crab, then become trapped in Cape Cod Bay, unable to navigate 20 to 25 miles north past the tip of the Cape to swim south for the winter, LaCasse said. The turtles get too cold to move and end up at the mercy of the sea. Some wash up onto beaches where volunteers are looking for them.
“In a normal year, you might have one turtle after Christmas, but to get seven on one day speaks to the fact that the Cape Cod Bay is quite warm still,” he said. “The thing that is a bit frightening for us is that those warm-water temperatures make us think we could get even more turtles.”
Though the warmer water temperatures may be contributing to the increase in strandings, LaCasse said researchers still don’t know for sure.
“While we have this extraordinary event happening, we genuinely don’t know what is causing it,” he said. “We are flummoxed. We have 10 times the number of loggerheads we would usually have.”
The record number of strandings has also increased strain on the staff and resources at the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Quincy, particularly because the large loggerheads take up more space than the smaller Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that traditionally make up the bulk of the center’s patients.
“We have been so overwhelmed with the number of turtles this season,” LaCasse said. “The tank that we can usually put six to eight Kemp’s in, we can only put one loggerhead in. So we are moving loggerheads as fast as we can.”
Last weekend, the aquarium transported about 40 turtles to facilities in other parts of the country, including six loggerheads flown to Georgia for further rehabilitation.
LaCasse said space created by the departures has since been filled with even more rescued turtles. “We are now back at ground zero, where we are at capacity and are out of space,” he said.
Earlier this month, a Coast Guard plane loaded with 35 sea turtles recovering from hypothermia flew to Orlando, the largest transport of rescued turtles in the New England Aquarium’s 40-year history.
The turtles, rescued at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, will finish their recovery at several marine animal rescue facilities, including SeaWorld Orlando, LaCasse said.