Mini parade of rescued young sea turtles released into Gulf

GRAND ISLE (AP) – A small parade of rescued young sea turtles has headed into the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana – a bright note in a tough season for sea turtles.

The 13 released on Monday at Grand Isle were among more than 1,100 cold-stunned starting in the fall in New England, where experts say climate change is contributing to such events.

Many thousands were cold-stunned off of Texas in February by the winter storm that killed at least 20 people from Texas to the East Coast.

Once the cardboard boxes holding them were put down on the beach, the dinner plate-sized turtles began scraping at the sides and poking their noses out of the holes, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported. Their front flippers churned wildly as they were picked up.

“They’re like, ‘Let me back in!’” said Gabriella Harlamert, sea turtle stranding, rescue and rehab coordinator at the Audubon Nature Institute.

Audubon’s Coastal Wildlife Network Rescue and Rehab Coordinator Gabriella Harlamert holds a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle being released into the Gulf of Mexico from the Grand Isle beach. PHOTO: AP

Sea turtles get cold-stunned and lethargic when the water around them chills down so fast they can’t swim to warmer waters. The cold alone can kill them. It can also lead to pneumonia, shock and frostbite.

Those released this week at Grand Isle were Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, like most of those injured in New England, where volunteers rescued 775 turtles, said Kate Sampson, regional sea turtle stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Kemp’s ridley are the smallest and most endangered sea turtles – and all six species found in United States waters are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Sampson said she didn’t have survival figures, but typically about 80 per cent of the turtles cold-stunned off New England that are sent for rehabilitation survive.

“These animals are really sick when they come in,” she said – they’ve eaten little if anything for as much as a month and their immune systems are in bad shape.

The Texas turtles were likely in relatively good shape because the cold came on so quickly, she said.

In the 1990s, about 100 or fewer cold-stunned sea turtles were found every year off New England, but the average is now more than 600, Sampson said.

She said that’s partly because more Kemp’s ridley are hatching, but also because the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than any other water body, and that warmth is drawing in more and more juvenile turtles.