This year East Hampton has proven to be a hot spot for cold-stunned sea turtles. According to Kim Durham, the rescue program director at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, three stunned turtles have been found on East Hampton beaches in the past month, and she expects more.
Since November 11, the turtles have made striking appearances on bay beaches at Napeague Harbor Road, Flaggy Hole Road and at Cedar Point. Each one, stunned by the cold, has found itself washed up on the shore—pulse dropping and movement ceasing. Had they not been found and reported by passersby, they would have died, Ms. Durham said.
“It’s the lucky ones that wash ashore,” she added. “If a turtle has been immobilized by the cold, it’s just going to wash up with pieces of debris. Some people will find these animals upside down by the seaweed and debris on the beach. East Hampton seems to be the place to be if you’re a cold sea turtle.”
Sea turtles, which are cold-blooded, are heavily dependent on the temperature of the water for their well-being. The colder it gets, the heavier the toll on their bodies. The turtle found at Napeague Harbor Road on November 11 had a heart rate of 3 beats per minute as opposed to the typical 30 beats.
According to Ms. Durham, when the water temperature reaches about 50 degrees, it begins to affect some sea turtles, depending on their size. They typically are at their best at 70- to 75-degree water temperature. The turtles found this month have been on the smaller side. Discovered at Cedar Point on November 15, the most recently caught and cared for turtle was a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, measuring approximately 1 foot in length and weighing about 3 pounds. Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are endangered, Ms. Durham said.
In the East Hampton sea turtles’ cases, the recent cold snap really did a number on them.
“If temperatures get in the 50s, little animals have a hard time and lose the ability to swim and dive and the wind blows them ashore,” Ms. Durham said. “Typically north-facing beaches is where we see them along. The North Fork sees a lot of cold stuns, especially in Southold town, and on the South Fork, north-facing beaches within Peconic Bay.” The turtle found at Flaggy Hole Road, which is on Gardiner’s Bay, was found November 13.
The sea turtles that get caught in cold waters are usually younger and don’t “have the life experience yet,” Ms. Durham said.
“They may reach colder temperatures as they try to go out and then turn back in and get stuck in the bay or in Long Island Sound,” she added. “It’s misreading cues and such.”
A not-for-profit based at the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center in Riverhead, the foundation encourages people to report a sea turtle finding as soon as possible and discourages them from trying to warm turtles up on their own.
“It is critical not to start warming the turtles up,” Ms. Durham said. “If you start warming them up too much, and you bring them home and put them in the bathtub or a heated car, it could bring up their temperature too quickly and they could go into shock. There have been situations where the animal was thought to be dead but it warms up suddenly and it’s swimming in the bathtub, but then the animal starts crashing. We’ve lost several animals to people who were thinking they were doing the right thing.”
The turtles that were found this month were reported to police and to the foundation immediately, giving the foundation’s rescue program the chance to report to the scene, pick them up and take them back for medical attention.
Initially, the rescue staff gives the turtles intravenous fluids to warm them up internally, and it may also have to use heat lamps to bring their temperature up slowly. Sometimes the turtles are transferred between tubs of water at different temperatures. Sometimes, at the suggestion of a veterinarian, steroids are given to stimulate them and get them going.
When they come around, the sea turtles begin lifting their heads to breathe and their heart rate increases, Ms. Durham said.
The turtles are typically kept in large tanks until the winter is over and then put back into the water at one of the foundation’s “release parties.”
The three turtles found this month won’t be the last, Ms. Durham said. In 2012 between November 20 and 30, 16 turtles were brought in.
“Last year, for the last two weeks in November, multiple animals were coming in—people were bringing turtles in through the front door of the Long Island Aquarium,” Ms. Durham said, explaining that she expects the numbers to creep up again, but only if the public handles them correctly.
A class on how to deal with a beached sea turtle will be held on November 24 at 1:30 p.m. at the Long Island Aquarium.
“If you see a sea turtle on the beach do something—they’re not supposed to be here, just report it,” she said. “Don’t put them back in the water. It’s like turning someone who is sick away from the hospital. Get us involved as soon as possible.”
Those who do come across a distressed turtle can call the foundation’s 24-hour hotline at 631-369-9828.