The adult male was washed up on a mudflat along the Herring River near Wellfleet on 12 October when it was spotted by members of the public, who notified the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
The organisation duly dispatched its team to secure the turtle, described as being in an alert and responsive state, and to prevent it from drifting into further trouble.
“We wanted to keep it off the oysters and keep it from stranding somewhere we couldn’t rescue it. If it got away, there was no telling where it would strand next,” the sanctuary’s director emeritus Bob Prescott explained afterwards.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the New England Aquarium were both called in to help, the former to safely relocate the creature to Herring Cove in Provincetown where it could be released back into the North Atlantic and the latter to check on its health before that operation was attempted.
“To safely move a stranded turtle this large, our specially designed heavy-duty transport cart, stretchers and mats were ideal,” said Kira Kasper, a biologist with the Marine Mammal Rescue and Research programme at IFAW, explaining that the cart was originally designed for shifting dolphins and small whales.
Having successfully moved the creature, the aquarium was able to examine it for signs of injury or illness.
Dr Charles Innis, director of animal health at the New England Aquarium, took a blood sample and gave it injections of vitamins and a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug.
“Our initial evaluation indicated that the turtle was very strong and in good body condition, and this helped us to decide that it was a good candidate for release,” he said subsequently.
His team also fitted the turtle with a satellite “pop-up” tag to monitor its progress over the next 30 days. All being well, the tag will be used thereafter to track its migratory patterns over the next five to 10 years, providing a valuable research insight.
After the turtle had been successfully released back into the ocean off Provincetown, surrounded by a crowd of cheering wellwishers and puzzled dogs, research scientist Dr Kara Dodge of the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life reflected that it was “a rarity” to find one “in such good condition” given its ordeal.
“We suspect this leatherback got disoriented in the tidal flats of Wellfleet and we feel optimistic that it will survive, thanks to the collective rescue efforts of this fantastic group of colleagues,” she said.
The problem of turtles becoming stranded in the near-circular, hook-shaped bay is an annual one, however, with declining sea temperatures in the autumn prompting the marine animals to leave in search of warmer climes.
But not all manage to, with many, particularly younger ones, finding themselves confounded by Cape Cod’s complex geography and left “cold-stunned” and immobile by the unexpected chill, which can lead to them being washed ashore with the tide.
“Most of the turtles that become cold-stunned are young Kemp’s ridley sea turtles,” The Cape Cod Times explained in a report last November, noting that larger species like loggerheads and leatherbacks “do not typically succumb to the cold until December”.
The latter, like the 600-pounder successfully rescued this month, are thought to be among the most highly migratory animals on earth, according to the IFAW, and typically travel about 10,000 miles or more every year.
They are named for their tough shells and can grow to weigh as much as 1,500 pounds, according to the World Wildlife Federation, which lists their status as “vulnerable” given the decline in their numbers over the course of the last century as a result of their eggs being harvested and their getting caught up in commercial fishing nets.
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