Cold Stunning: Where, How and Why?

Picture this: You’ve just spent a wonderful, late summer week on Cape Cod, swimming in the ocean and enjoying the sunshine with friends and family. As fall sets in, you know it’s time to head home. You get on the highway, but something strange happens … despite driving for hours, you end up back where you started. You feel sluggish, confused and exhausted. If you were a turtle, you just might be cold-stunned.

Published November 22, 2019

While the above scenario reads like something out of a Stephen King novel, it is often a fall-time reality for sea turtles in Cape Cod Bay.

Retrieving a cold-stunned turtle

Each summer, various juvenile sea turtle species migrate north, where they forage for food. Kemp’s ridleys, loggerheads, greens, leatherbacks and more are all lured into the warm, shallow waters of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which form a perfect foraging ground. Unfortunately for sea turtles, once the weather turns, this idyllic summer retreat becomes a trap.

Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles, and when they experience cold temperatures, they can become lethargic, and even comatose. In Cape Cod, the large size of the bay and it’s northerly facing exit compound the issue—dazed, weakened sea turtles are unable to make the journey out. Eventually, they float aimlessly or sink to the bottom of the bay and are pushed inland by tides and high winds.

Every year, National Aquarium staff and volunteers collaborate with a number of local and national institutions in an effort to rescue, rehabilitate, and release these cold-stunned turtles.

It starts with a survey, or sometimes, a call. Each year, as many as 300 sea turtles might wash up on the shores of the Cape, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Welfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary conducts regular surveys—determined by tide cycles and wind direction and speed—to snag the stranded turtles as quickly as possible.

After the initial rescue, the turtles are triaged and stabilized at New England Aquarium, where their body temperature is slowly raised to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. From here, rehabilitation institutions like the National Aquarium transport the turtles to their facilities to begin the recovery process.

Transport is a multi-organizational effort. Sometimes, the National Aquarium will drive up to the New England Aquarium and take not only their own rehab patients, but those of fellow institutions as well. These turtles are dropped off on the drive home—no easy task, as the car must be kept at around 75 degrees Fahrenheit at all times!

Other times, the Aquarium partners with volunteer pilots from Turtles Fly Too, or the Coast Guard. Turns out, the perfect transport container for a cold-stunned turtle… is a padded banana box! Specially modified planes are loaded up with these rehab patients to make the trip down to Baltimore. Once they’re at the Aquarium, these turtles are in for some long-haul care, with some staying with us for nearly a full year.

Last year’s turtles were rescued just before Thanksgiving, and November typically sees the majority of strandings. As the holidays approach, we eagerly anticipate the arrival of the first of this year’s turtles!

Stay tuned to National Aquarium Facebook and Twitter pages for updates on the upcoming cold-stun season!

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