Saturday, November 28, 2009
Annual search for Kemp's ridley turtles
On this day in 2001, about a hundred naturalists and volunteers combed the beaches of Cape Cod Bay. They are looking for summer visitors who have overstayed their welcome -- dozens of stranded sea turtles.
The turtles, called Kemp's ridleys, are the world's rarest and most endangered sea turtles. Weighing 5 to 10 pounds, usually 2 to 3 years old and about the size of a big green dinner plate, they spend summers feeding on blue mussels and crabs in the warm bay. But in fall, when they should be swimming south, many fail to get out of the bay.
Robert Prescott, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Wildlife Sanctuary, explained: ''When the fall weather turns cold and the water temperature dips below 50 degrees for a sustained period of time, they become so sluggish they can't leave the bay for warmer water. A strong northerly wind pushes them ashore.''
At that point, the wildlife sanctuary mobilizes its annual rescue effort. In 1999, the busiest year for strandings, the volunteers found 220 Kemp's ridleys, a big part of the worldwide population. So far this year, they have found 29. (Scientists do not know the total number but have counted 4,000 nests on beaches at Rancho Nuevo, on the Gulf of Mexico, meaning that there are at least 4,000 females.)
Because sea turtles can die from the cold, naturalists say, the sooner they find the turtles, the better the chance of their survival. Once recovered, they ride -- often in the passenger seat of a naturalist's pickup truck -- to the sanctuary in Wellfleet. A saline solution is applied to their eyes; protective jelly is rubbed on the carapace to retain body heat; some are given fluid intravenously.
Within 12 hours, they are taken to the New England Aquarium in Boston. After an average stay of four months, they complete their recovery at centers like Sea World in Florida, and are usually released in Florida or North Carolina. After that, Mr. Prescott said, the temptations of Cape Cod Bay are no longer a problem for the Kemp's ridleys: they come here only once in their lives. At age 15 to 20, the females return to Mexico to lay their eggs. (NY Times, Nov. 27, 2001)