Forty endangered sea turtles injured when the water off Massachusetts cooled down so quickly that they couldn’t swim away are being nursed back to health at the Mississippi Aquarium, having been flown there by a volunteer pilot group, Turtles Fly Too.
All were Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, the world’s smallest sea turtles and the most endangered of six species found in US waters, the aquarium said.
“All 40 of the Kemp’s ridleys are pretty small,” as little as 2.2lb (1kg), said Alexa Delaune, the aquarium’s vice-president of veterinary services. Most showed signs of pneumonia and would be treated with antibiotics, she said.
Sea turtles can become lethargic when stunned by water that chills before they can swim to warmer waters. The cold alone can kill them. It can also lead to pneumonia, shock and frostbite. Some experts believe climate change is increasing the number of turtles afflicted off Cape Cod each winter.
A spokesperson for the New England Aquarium, Tony LaCasse, told the Guardian Cape Cod Bay can act as “a deadly bucket” for sea turtles.
The bay is shaped like the crook of an elbow, therefore requiring turtles hunting there in the warm season to swim north and east to escape, when the turtles instinctually want to swim south.
“Their instinct tells them to retreat back into the shallow warmer water of the bay and wait it out,” LaCasse told the Guardian in 2018, when 790 turtles were stranded on local beaches.
“The problem is it’s the end of the season and there’s no way to get out.”
The number of turtles stranded in Cape Cod Bay has increased “by nearly an order of magnitude” in recent decades, a study published in PLOS One found in 2019.
Scientists believe the increase is driven in part by climate change, which has warmed waters in the Gulf of Maine, making the area more attractive to turtles. This encourages turtles to stay longer, before they are hit by cold New England weather.
The current group of cold-stunned turtles was flown to Gulfport on Friday after the New England Aquarium ran out of room and appealed for help, a Mississippi Aquarium spokesman said.
The aquarium was already caring for two turtles rescued last year in Massachusetts, one with a severe lung infection and the other with a shoulder infection that restricts movement. The Boston aquarium asked the Gulfport aquarium to take the two poorly testudines to make room for this year’s injured, officials said in November.
Last year, 75 turtles stranded in Massachusetts were treated in Gulfport and New Orleans. Thirty were sent to the Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans, 25 to the Mississippi Aquarium and 20 to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport.
The Audubon center is not treating any sea turtles from this winter’s strandings but is ready to do so if needed, spokeswoman Annie Kinler Matherne said.