Large marine turtles native to warm waters have been stranded around the British Isles in the past six weeks. Conservationists say anyone finding one alive should contact specialist rescuers as the animals can often be nursed back to health.
The endangered reptiles, including loggerheads often found off Florida and central America, are probably being washed up as a result of south-westerly winds. The winds are forecast to continue and more turtles are expected to turn up on British and Irish beaches, according to the Marine Conservation Society and Marine Environmental Monitoring (MEM).
Most turtles eventually die in cold seas, but some survive. While stranded turtles may appear to be dead, they may be comatose because of the cold conditions, and can recover.
"While many of the turtles reported this year have washed up dead, three have been alive," said MEM's strandings co-ordinator Rod Penrose. "Under no circumstances should live turtles be put back into the sea here in the UK. If rescued in time, these animals can be nursed back to health, indeed, 11 out of 19 live stranded turtles rescued from UK and Irish beaches in the past decade have been successfully rehabilitated and released."
The strandings started in Scotland in late December, when a dead juvenile loggerhead turtle washed up on the shores of Islay.
Since then, another 10 have stranded on beaches in Gwynedd and Anglesey in Wales, Argyll in Scotland, counties Clare, Cork and Wexford in Ireland, and in south-west England. In the past two weeks, two live loggerhead turtles were found – one at Bude, Cornwall, on 26 January and another at Putsborough Beach, north Devon last Saturday.
Both are juveniles, and are now recovering in the Blue Reef Aquarium in Newquay, north Cornwall. The aquarium's curator, Matt Slater, said it was extremely rare for two turtles to wash up around the same time and that they were recovering. He said they were probably from America or Mexico.
If they recover they will be flown to a dedicated rescue centre in Gran Canaria and eventually be released into warmer seas. The latest stranding, reported on Monday, was of a dead leatherback turtle that washed up without its head or flippers at Tywyn in Gwynedd, Wales.
Six of the seven known species of turtle are classified as endangered or threatened. They were formerly hunted on a large scale for their meat, fat and shells, and their eggs were also taken, but now they are protected. However, they are sometimes accidentally caught by fishing boats, or swallow plastic bags, mistaking them for food.
Stranded turtles should be reported to MEM on 01348 875000, which will rescue live turtles and recover any that have died.