Saving cold-stunned sea turtles: North Fork Outdoors

A group of volunteers rescues a sea turtle in Mattituck. (Credit: Chris Paparo/ Fish Guy Photos)

This past weekend, I was exploring the wrack line at Mattituck Inlet looking for hidden treasures that could be potential story ideas for this month’s column. I was not having much luck finding any gold until I spotted a “rock” a couple hundred yards down the beach. 

The “rock” caught my eye because I frequent this beach often and that “rock” was never there before. As I got closer, I noticed the “rock” was not a rock, rather it was a loggerhead sea turtle. Upon approaching it, a couple local residents informed me that they had just called the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation’s Stranding Hotline. Twenty minutes later, the turtle was in the rescue vehicle and on its way to the hospital.

Sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles that inhabit the world’s tropical and sub-tropical oceans. Instead of having webbed, clawed feet like their pond turtle cousins, sea turtles have long, powerful flippers, allowing them to swim the vast open ocean with ease.  Flippers make venturing onto land an extremely difficult task and one that is only taken on by females for the sole purpose of nesting.

Nesting beaches can be found from North Carolina south to Florida along the east coast of and throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. Although we might not have nesting sites here in the northeast, the abundance of food — in the way of invertebrates, seaweeds and jellyfish — attracts large numbers of sea turtles to Long Island every summer.

As summer winds down, water temperatures will begin to drop as the cool breezes of autumn start to blow. With the change of the seasons, sea turtles will instinctively start their trek back to the warmer waters to our south. Being a cold-blooded organism (their body temperature is regulated by their surroundings), it is imperative that they leave before the surrounding water gets too cold. If they do not leave before the water temperature plunges below 50 degree, they become cold-stunned.  As their core body temperature drops, they become lethargic and will float wherever the ocean currents carry them. In most cases, they will wash ashore where they will most certainly die (unless they are lucky enough to be rescued).

A loggerhead sea turtle. (Credit: Chris Paparo/Fish Guy Photos)

There are seven species of sea turtles in the world, four of which can be found on Long Island. The Kemp’s ridley is the smallest of the sea turtles only growing to two-feet long and weighing roughly 100 pounds. It is also the most endangered of the sea turtles with an estimated population of 1,000 breeding females, which is down from 40,000 in the 1940s. Feeding on crabs and other invertebrates, they prefer shallow waters and are most likely encountered in our bays. Their small size makes them the most susceptible to becoming cold-stunned.

The most abundant species of sea turtle in U.S. waters is the loggerhead. Named because of its large head, they are equipped with powerful jaws and are able to crush various hard-shelled prey such as crabs and whelks with ease. They are brownish red in color, grow to three-feet in length and weigh 250 pounds.

Reaching weights close to 400 pounds, the green sea turtle is the largest of the hard-shelled sea turtles. This species was often used in turtle soup recipes and was named for the color of their fat rather than shell color. Adult green turtles are primarily herbivores and have a serrated beak that allows them to easily tear seaweeds into bite-size pieces.

The largest of all sea turtles — the leatherback — is truly exceptional among all the sea turtle species. Feeding strictly on jellyfish — which are made up of 95 percent water — this jet-black behemoth can reach weights of nearly 2,000 pounds.  Instead of having powerful jaws for crushing, leatherbacks have scissor-like jaws that slice through jellyfish.  In order to swallow such a gelatinous meal, their mouth and throat is full of spines that help direct the meal down their throat. Unfortunately, this diet of jellyfish might lead to their demise. Leatherbacks often mistaken plastic bags, balloons and other marine debris for jellyfish and accidentally consume them. Feeding on this trash can lead to internal blockages that eventually cause the turtle to starve to death.

A unique adaptation of the leatherback is it has a thermoregulatory system. They are able to maintain a core body temperature much higher than the surrounding water temperatures. This enables them to travel further north than any other species of sea turtle and not be prone to cold-stunning as the other three species of sea turtles.

All sea turtles are federally protected and are either listed as endangered or threatened.  Destruction of habitat, climate change, pollution, boat strikes, accidental catches in fishing gear and poaching have all contributed to their decline worldwide.

As I mentioned earlier, a cold-stunned sea turtle is doomed, unless they are found in time. Unfortunately, the loggerhead that we found succumbed to the cold, dying a few days later. Once the water temperature drops below that crucial point, time is of the essence. The sooner they are found, the better chance they will have to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild.

The Riverhead Foundation (riverheadfoundation.org) and Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (amseas.org) are always recruiting volunteers to walk the beach looking for these cold-stunned turtles.

If you should find a turtle, immediately call the Stranding Hotline at 631-369-9828.

Odds are that you will not find a sea turtle on every outing, but on the chance that you do, you have the possibility to save the life of a threatened or endangered species.  Additionally, these beach walks make for a fun family outing. It’s an excellent excuse to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors. It’s also a great chance to give back to nature by bringing a garbage bag or two for some of the trash you will most likely encounter. Be sure to dress warm though, so you don’t become cold-stunned yourself!

With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally, he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook and Instagram @fishguyphotos.