Sea turtles nursed back to health after record rescue from cold

CHARLESTON, USA - A veterinarian punched a syringe into the tough, wrinkled neck of an endangered sea turtle named Crowe one day this week at the South Carolina Aquarium and drew dark, red blood to test whether the animal was ready to be sent back into the wild.

The Kemp's Ridley turtle was among the record number of rescued sea turtles stunned by cold water in the US Northeast late last fall. Despite weeks of antibiotics, vitamin injections and fluids, an X-ray revealed Crowe had joint swelling in his flippers and still was not healthy enough for release. Kemp's Ridley is the most endangered of sea turtle species, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Turtles "beat themselves up in captivity," said veterinarian Shane Boylan, who has been treating the animal at the aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina.

Similar efforts have been underway at 17 aquariums, marine facilities and labs from New England to Florida since more than 200 loggerheads, Kemp's Ridley and green sea turtles fell victim to a pre-Thanksgiving cold snap in otherwise warm waters.

The hypothermic turtles, some of which were emaciated or had pneumonia, initially were brought to Boston's New England Aquarium as part of an unprecedented large turtle rescue by the facility. But the aquarium's turtle hospital is designed to hold no more than 70 animals and was quickly overwhelmed, said Connie Merigo, rescue department manager and senior biologist.

"One hundred loggerheads came in, each weighing 20 to 90 pounds," she said.

The aquarium kept the turtles that were in critical condition and transferred 139 others by van and private plane to various East Coast facilities, she said.

TURTLES FLOWN SOUTH

The US Coast Guard flew 35 sick turtles and their medical records on a C-130 transport plane to Florida, where they were divided among several marine facilities.

The South Carolina Aquarium took in 15 sea turtles at its turtle hospital, said Kelly Thorvalson, manager of the aquarium's Sea Turtle Rescue Program. Weeks of treatment followed to reverse the severe effects of cold water stunning.

"Their bodies shut down. Their digestive system shuts down. Their heart rates slow," she said.

Of the 242 sea turtles brought to the New England Aquarium, two dozen were dead on arrival and another two dozen died there, New England Aquarium's Merigo said.

The reason for the record number of cold-stunned turtles remains something of a mystery.

Sea turtles have survived as a species for more than 100 million years and overcome huge odds on their migratory swims over thousands of miles, according to scientists.

Kemp's Ridleys are one of the smallest sea turtles, growing to about 2 feet in length and weighing up to 100 pounds. They nest on the western Gulf of Mexico and range as far as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Their population dropped to a critical count of only 702 nesting females in 1985 but government protection has brought the number back to about 20,000.

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