Animal Rescue Season Inside Scoop

The 2023-24 sea turtle and seal rescue seasons brought changing sea turtle rehabilitation trends and new resources for seal rescue.

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During our 2023-24 rescue season, the National Aquarium Animal Health and Animal Rescue teams cared for harp and grey seals, as well as Kemp's ridley, green and loggerhead sea turtles. Our rescue and rehabilitation efforts this season included antibiotic therapy to treat infections, fluid therapy for dehydration, wound care for injuries, physical therapy to restore mobility, and healthy nutrition to help malnourished animals put on weight.

Sea Turtle Rescue Season

Peak rescue season for cold-stunned sea turtles in the Northeast lasts from November through December. Cold stunning in sea turtles occurs when they swim in cold water over a long period of time, making them vulnerable to health issues, disorientation and trouble regulating their buoyancy. Many of these turtles get stuck floating on the water's surface or washed up on beaches. At the National Aquarium, our most common sea turtle patients are cold-stunned juveniles that need about three to six months of care.

A Handful of Fishes Helps Sea Turtle Medicine Go Down

One of the most crucial aspects of the turtles' care is their food! Not only is a healthy diet necessary for energy and overall health, but it's also a great place to hide oral medications and antibiotics to support their recovery. We offer natural prey items like capelin, herring, shrimp and squid. For enrichment, we also occasionally offer blue crab, which is a favorite treat. The turtles are fed a balanced diet based on their weight, species and medical condition for a speedy recovery.

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle Swimming at National Aquarium Sea Turtle Rehab Center with Number 121 Painted on Shell While Eating Seafood

Rescued sea turtles are separated by species and kept in a large pool with several dividers. When it's time to eat, Aquarium staff and volunteers grab food from a buffet of options and toss it from a platform above the pool, aiming for a turtle with a specific number painted on its shell. This process limits human contact with the turtles to maintain their wild behaviors. It also allows staff and volunteers to easily identify which turtle they're feeding and record how much each turtle eats.

Changing Rescue Trends

In recent years, rescue trends have continued to evolve, with more patients requiring intensive care beyond our typical sea turtle rehabilitation season. Occasionally, cold-stunned turtles suffer from osteomyelitis, a bone infection that can cause bone loss and mobility complications.

Aquarium Staff Wading in the Water of a Rehab Pool with Carmen the Green Sea Turtle and Helping Her Swim By Moving Her Flipper

Carmen, a juvenile green sea turtle, was rescued during the 2022-23 cold stunning season and was still recovering through spring 2024. Carmen's infection caused bone loss in one flipper, affecting her swimming. During her recovery, we offered Carmen a salad bar daily—a PVC pipe full of cucumbers, peppers and lettuce to mimic green sea turtle's favorite foods, which are seagrass and algae. This enrichment tool avoids human contact and encourages natural foraging behaviors. For Carmen, it also provided hands-off physical therapy by motivating her to use her front flipper for diving and bracing herself to retrieve her favorite snacks. Despite her extended stay, our team is confident that Carmen will be able to thrive on her own in the ocean.

Last summer and fall, our team responded to an influx of sea turtles with hook ingestion, buoyancy issues and heavy biofouling (barnacle and algal growth), indicating these animals had been sick for a prolonged time. While our Animal Health and Animal Rescue teams supported their recovery outside of our normal rescue season, these animals represent a small part of a recent trend of increasing numbers of stranded sea turtles in Maryland waters.

"In the last few years, we've had less of a sea turtle rescue 'season' and more of a year-round need for sea turtle rehabilitation," said National Aquarium Rehabilitation Manager Caitlin Bovery. "It's common to see sea turtles in the Chesapeake Bay, but we have seen more locally stranded sea turtles than before. Since sea turtles are an indicator species, it's likely a sign that their habitat or food sources are threatened, which could be an effect of climate change."

Back to Warmer Waters

After a sea turtle patient shows signs of improvement, the veterinary team will stop all treatments and monitor for any relapse in recovery. If its health remains stable, our veterinarians will conduct an exam to clear each animal for release! During the cold winter, sea turtles are transported to southeastern locations like Florida to be released into warmer waters. Local Maryland releases are only possible in the warmer summer months when the Atlantic Ocean has warmed sufficiently.

Aquarium Staff Holds Sea Turtle with Raised Flippers Near the Open Trunk of a Car on Beach Before the Sea Turtle's Release at Anastasia State Park

All sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act. If you find a sick or injured sea turtle in Maryland, call the National Aquarium's Animal Stranding Hotline at 410-576-3880 to report a live animal or the Department of Natural Resources at 800-628-9944 to report an animal that's deceased. If you do not live in Maryland, visit the NOAA Fisheries website to find marine wildlife responders in your area. Keep a distance of at least 50 yards (about three school bus lengths) from sea turtles on the beach and in the water. All National Aquarium sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation activities are conducted under U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit 70312D.

Seal Rescue Season

Traditionally, peak rescue season for seals lasts from January through June. Sick and injured seals in need of rescue along the mid-Atlantic coast can now be evaluated and begin treatment at the National Aquarium Stranding Response Center, which opened this year in Ocean City, Maryland.

Harp Seal in an Empty Plastic Tub Looking Up at Aquarium Staff in the Ocean City Stranding Response Center with a Rescue Truck Parked in the Background

Bringing Seal Rescue to the Beach

This center marks the Aquarium's first on-site location for stranding response. Proximity to the beach has expedited our care time by allowing us to perform triage and basic medical care for rescued animals. We can even take and run preliminary blood tests and start treatments like antibiotics or pain medication before animals needing more intensive care are transported to our Animal Care and Rescue Center in Baltimore—a trip that takes about three hours. In fact, some animals, like Medusa, a juvenile harp seal with mild dehydration, never need to leave Ocean City. Staff and volunteers at the triage center gave her fluids and monitored her health until she recovered, quickly returning her to the beach.

Seals needing extra care do make the trip to Baltimore. Selkie and Hydra, two maternally dependent grey seals, were separated from their mothers at a very young age, before they could feed themselves. After arriving at the ACRC, the seals were housed together with a kiddie pool full of water, which meant it was time to go to fish school.

School for Seals

For grey seal pups, early separation from their mothers can be dangerous. One of the first lessons a pup must learn is how to forage for fish. First, an Animal Rescue team member will fill a kiddie pool with warm water and place the seal inside. Next, they will use tongs to grab a fish from a bucket and push it through the water with jerky, splashing motions to mimic a fish swimming. They will continue these movements until the seal eats the fish or shows disinterest.

Aquarium Staff Hand-feeding Fish to Selkie the Grey Seal in a Red Kiddie Pool Full of Water at the ACRC

Pups like Hydra with some ocean experience graduate from fish school quickly, while seals like Selkie need extra hands-on care. Selkie is the youngest maternally dependent grey seal we've treated at the National Aquarium, coming to us at about one week old. Grey seals are born on land and don't typically enter the water until after one month of nursing with their mother and one month of fasting, so Selkie needed a slow introduction to aquatic life. She began by swimming in shallow, warm water in the kiddie pool, and then we added fish to get her used to food. Selkie struggled with eating independently, so we introduced assisted feeding sessions to encourage her to swallow. Instead of using tongs to feed, staff placed a fish directly into Selkie's mouth while rubbing water on her body to show the connection between fish and water. Our team knows when seals are ready to be released when the animals can forage for food, weigh over 50 pounds and pass medical and behavioral examinations.

Never approach or touch a seal you see on the beach. Instead, maintain a distance of at least 150 feet and keep all pets leashed. If you spot a seal on a Maryland beach, contact the National Aquarium's Animal Stranding Hotline at 410-576-3880 with the seal's location and the time of day. All National Aquarium stranding response and seal rehabilitation activities are conducted under National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration permit 18786-04.

How You Can Take Action

Everyone can take action to help protect sea turtles and seals—no matter where you live. Like all wildlife, these animals can be harmed by plastic pollution. In Maryland, keeping our beaches clean and free of trash helps wildlife that mistake things like plastic bags for food. Even if you don't live near a beach, limiting the amount of single-use plastic you use can help keep plastic from blowing or washing into the ocean in the first place.

At the Aquarium, we work with partners to advocate for increased public investment in protected species research and conservation. We also advocate for a variety of policies focused on preventative action to reduce animal injuries by lowering speed limits for vessels, ensuring offshore wind production includes provisions for wildlife protection, reducing plastic production and more. You can also help by supporting legislation to increase federal investments in conservation, like the bipartisan Sea Turtle Rescue Assistance and Rehabilitation Act. This bill would provide federal funding for organizations that rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles.

Act Today Support Sea Turtle Conservation

Contact your senators to urge them to pass the bipartisan Sea Turtle Rescue Assistance and Rehabilitation Act, which would provide federal funding for organizations that rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles.

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