‘Cold-stunned’ sea turtles warming up at Florida Keys turtle hospital

MARATHON, FLA. (WSVN) - Critically endangered sea turtles were flown in from New England to a hospital in Marathon after being rescued from the coastal waters of Cape Cod, Mass., suffering from cold-stunning.

Fifteen Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were flown to the Florida Keys Marathon Airport by a group of volunteer general aviation pilots who call themselves the “Sea Turtle Lift Off.” These pilots donated their aircraft, fuel and time to transport the turtles in towel-lined banana boxes.

The juvenile turtles, ranging from two to 10 pounds each, arrived Monday evening from Norwood, Mass.

Staff at the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital, including from left, Alastir McArthur, Bette Zirkelbach, Richie Moretti and Marika Weber; begin to care for critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles flown from New England to the hospital Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, in Marathon, Fla., after being rescued from coastal waters of Cape Cod, Mass., suffering from cold stunning. Most of the 15 turtles transported to the Keys have been diagnosed with pneumonia. Their treatment is to consist of administering antibiotics, vitamins, food and providing habitats with warm water at 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It is hoped they can be released off Florida in one to two months. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Larry Benvenuti/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO)
Staff at the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital, including from left, Alastir McArthur, Bette Zirkelbach, Richie Moretti and Marika Weber (Larry Benvenuti/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO).

After landing, the sea turtles were transferred to The Turtle Hospital in Marathon. The Turtle Hospital opened in September of 1986, as the world’s first state-licensed veterinary sea turtle hospital.

Most of the turtles have been diagnosed with pneumonia as a result of cold-stunning. Cold-stunning is a hypothermic reaction that occurs when sea turtles are exposed to cold water for a prolonged time, said Turtle Hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “at very low temperatures (less than 50o Fahrenheit) these cold-blooded animals may become lethargic or ‘stunned.’ Smaller sea turtles are the first to feel the effects of the cold, but if the temperature stays low for too long, larger sea turtles will also be affected. A cold-stunned turtle is not able to move very well, if at all.”

Their treatment consists antibiotics, vitamins, food and providing habitats with warm water at 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

One of 15 critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles peers from its rehabilitation tub after being flown from New England to the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, in Marathon, Fla. The turtles were rescued from coastal waters of Cape Cod, Mass., suffering from cold stunning. They were initially treated by New England Aquarium personnel and then transported to the Keys by a group of volunteer general aviation pilots dubbed "Sea Turtle Lift Off." Most have been diagnosed with pneumonia and need treatment including the opportunity to warm up in the Keys. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Larry Benvenuti/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO)
One of 15 critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles peers from its rehabilitation tub after being flown from New England (Larry Benvenuti/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO).

The rehabilitation is expected to take up to two months, according to Zirkelbach. They are likely to be released in the waters off of Florida when they recover.

According to Zirkelbach, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the most endangered turtle species in the world.

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