For young sea turtles, November can mark the beginning of a perilous time in their lives if they are not careful. The month signals the beginning of the cold stun turtle season, when air temperatures dip into the 40s and water temperature can plunge sharply into the 50s.
It’s at this point when the Kemps Ridley, Atlantic green and loggerheads that have been foraging in our local waters can become lethargic, their body temperatures dropping dangerously low, and their muscles weakening and navigational skills compromised.
The lucky and perhaps more experienced will have moved south, toward North Carolina or Florida, by the time the water temps hit 55 degrees. The unlucky will have tarried too long in places like the Long Island Sound or the Peconic Bay system, the weakest of which will find themselves washed up on one of the local beaches, chilled to the point their body functions stop, or they fall prey to seagulls or dogs.
Or, with one last chance at luck, be discovered by a beach walker who can call for help.
Or, luckier still, be discovered by a beach walker who is actually trained to help.
On a chilly recent Saturday, with a stiff wind blowing steadily at 12 knots out of the north-northwest, the sound rolled up high on the sand at Reeves Beach, just north of Riverhead.
“These conditions are actually just about perfect,” said Steve Abbondondello, a volunteer with the New York Marine Rescue Center, who, along with stranding technician Katie Goulder, led to the beach a group of 15 prospective volunteers who they hoped to add to the small army of beach walkers who will look for stranded turtles this season.
The water temperature, at 66 degrees, was still too warm for stunning the turtles, but Mr. Abbondondello noted that most sightings occur when the wind is blowing out of the north, pushing the stunned turtles onto north facing beaches, and at, or just after, high tide.
The rescue center just announced it had a remarkably successful 2019-2020 season, with a record number 85 cold stunned sea turtles processed at its facility in Riverhead, more than double the highest number of any previous year since 1980. Of those 85, 32 were successfully treated and returned to the sea. All of them were tagged on their flippers with data about where they were found, and five of them were fitted with satellite tags, which can be tracked on the rescue center’s website (nymarinerescue.org).
Why such a large number?
“It’s largely because of programs like this,” said Ms. Goulder, who noted the number of people aware of looking out for the turtles has increased in recent years.
Also, said Maxine Montelo, director of the organization’s rescue program, last year was a milder winter, which may have resulted in more turtles staying in the area longer. She also noted that the warmer waters — due, in part, to climate change — have encouraged the sea turtles to travel further north. Where their typical range takes them up off the Massachusetts coast, young sea turtles have been spotted more recently off New Hampshire and Maine as well, making the return trip in their annual migration to the coast between North Carolina and Florida that much longer — and more hazardous as the water temperatures drop.
It’s the younger of the species that we are likely to find stranded here, said Ms. Montelo, and mostly in the age range from 2 to 7 years old. The older turtles, she said, likely get themselves further out to sea and are not “blocked” by land masses like Long Island and Cape Cod as they attempt to head south. Also, the younger ones don’t have the body mass to keep their systems warmer.
On the beach, teams of volunteers, clipboards in hand, scoured the wrackline left by the recent high tide for signs of turtle life. It was unlikely they would find actual turtles, so the organizers planted a half-dozen plastic turtles along the beach, each with descriptive clues taped on their undersides — or plastron. The clues described the supposed turtle, its head size, shell shape, including scales and scutes — the distinct plates that form on backs of the shells, the patterns of which are unique to each of the species.
“Oh, I think this is a green Atlantic,” called out one of the volunteers-in-training, referring to the guide she held of different characteristics of each turtle species. She was right.
“What do you do now?” asked Mr. Abbondondello.
If this had been an actual stranding, the volunteers are told to immediately contact the rescue center’s hotline (631-369-9829) to alert them to the sighting. In most of these cases, time is of the essence.
On their clipboards the volunteers turned to forms which asked a host of questions: date, time, location, even GPS coordinates, air temperature and water temperature.
It turns out that the technology available in smart phones plays a big part in cutting down time when a rescue is necessary.
“Drop a pin,” suggested Ms. Goulder to another volunteer, telling her to open the Google Maps application on her phone, drop a pin at her location, and record the latitude and longitude. With miles of coastline to monitor, it’s important to have a precise location. Websites available can also give the spotter tide information and water temperature.
In the case of no cell reception, and the volunteer feels comfortable, he or she can remove the turtle to their car to get to a location with cell service, carefully holding the turtle right side up with two hands in the center sides of the carapace, and avoiding the turtle’s beak and flipper claws. Or, if they have to leave the turtle, they were told to mark the location in some way, a pile of rocks, for example.
“And what’s this one,” asked Ms. Goulder, holding up an 8-inch plastic turtle, exposing its underside to the crowd. Taped to the plastron were the clues “5 costal scutes, nearly round back, olive green color.”
“That’s a Kemp’s Ridley,” said one young volunteer tentatively.
The Kemp’s Ridley is the one species most spotted on local beaches, accounting for about 50 percent of sightings. It’s also endangered and is the smallest of the species most found — including the loggerhead and Atlantic green — at just 6-inches to a foot-and-a-half as a juvenile. The Atlantic green can be a foot to a foot-and-a-half as a juvenile, while a young loggerhead will be between 1 and 2 feet. Typically, Ms. Goulder said, the turtles they find along East End beaches tend to be “dinner plate size.”
Among the hot spots on the South Fork are the north facing bay beaches near the Shinnecock Inlet, Long Beach in Noyac, Sammy’s Beach in Northwest and Little Albert’s in Amagansett.
But spotting the turtles is only part of the battle. Once one is brought to the rescue center, a rehabilitation process begins with taking blood samples to determine what nutrients the animal may need, and administering a course of antibiotics if necessary.
And, importantly, the slow process of bringing the turtle’s body temperature back up to normal.
“It’s a five-day process,” said Ms. Montelo. “We bring their temperature up only about 2 to 4 degrees a day.”
“If they survive the first 24 to 48 hours, then there’s about a 95-percent success rate,” she said.
The turtles are then put into temperature-controlled tanks with their peers to rehabilitate and await their release.
Typically, a cold stunned sea turtle will spend about 242 days at the rescue center before being released in late July or August, with the average cost to rehabilitate one turtle at about $10,000.
On the beach, the 15 volunteers-in-training appeared ready to begin their patrols, despite the cold wind. And with about 80 miles of north facing shoreline on the two forks, there is a lot of ground to cover to locate small turtles in danger.
But Ms. Montelo was optimistic.
“With more volunteers and more people walking the beach,” she said, “the chances of finding turtles is much greater.”