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Cape Cod’s annual sea turtle rescue sets new records

A New England Aquarium intern cares for a rescued Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.
A New England Aquarium intern cares for a rescued Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.New England Aquarium (Custom credit)

Cape Cod’s sea turtle rescue season is setting two new records this year, according to the New England Aquarium.

Both the number of cold-stunned turtles recovered on Cape beaches and the volume of turtles now receiving life-saving medical treatment are at an unprecedented high, the aquarium said in a statement, breaking records set in 2014.

All turtles are being treated at the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Quincy and the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay. Between the two facilities, 720 turtles have received veterinary care since the season began early last month, the aquarium said.

Connie Merigo, marine animal rescue department manager at the New England Aquarium, said her team “knew this season would present a major challenge with the pandemic requiring additional safety protocols.”

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“Combine that with historic stranding numbers, and the rescue and rehab operation has been nothing short of extraordinary,” Merigo said in the statement.

Overall, this year’s cold-stun season is the second busiest in the 30 years that the rescue program has existed, the aquarium said.

Cold-stunning happens when sea turtles foraging along the New England coast during the summer become trapped in Cape Cod Bay in the fall. As water and air temperatures drop, turtles become hypothermic, eventually stop swimming, and can wash ashore in moderate to strong winds, the aquarium said.

Each fall, volunteers and staff for Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary patrol the beaches after every high tide, looking for turtles stranded on the beach. Any turtles they find are then driven to one of the two marine animal care facilities, according to the aquarium.

Once they reach the Aquarium’s hospital, the cold-stunned turtles are medically evaluated to look for any fractured bones or signs of pneumonia. To help process the animals more efficiently during the pandemic, the Aquarium developed a special water temperature protocol, according to the statement.

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Each turtle is slowly warmed in 55-degree water for the first 24 hours, then water up to 65 degrees for the next 24 hours, before increasing to 75 degrees.

Bob Prescott, who oversees Mass Audubon’s sea turtle rescue program, said in the statement that it’s unclear what caused a big stranding year. However, he said “passing tropical storms in the summer” and “frequent, strong west/southwest winds” in the fall appear to be key factors.

Most of the turtles that get stranded during the fall are young Kemp’s ridley turtles, the most critically endangered species of sea turtle, according to the aquarium.

Juvenile and sub-adult loggerhead sea turtles, a threatened species, are significantly larger than Kemp’s ridleys, and typically strand in mid-December. At least 75 percent of cold-stunned turtles admitted to the Aquarium will recover and be released back into the wild, the aquarium said.

Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ivscott99.