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Endangered Oregon: Saving Stranded Sea Turtles

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Sea turtles normally live in the tropical waters of Earth’s oceans, but every once in a while they lose their way and need some help from people. Starting in Fall 2015, an unusually large number of endangered green sea turtles and olive ridley sea turtles have found their way into the colder waters of the Pacific Northwest.

“We’re not entirely certain why this is happening,” said Mark Murray, an aquarist and sea turtle expert with the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Mark reports that approximately 10 sea turtles have turned up on beaches from northern California to southern Alaska during the past few months. It is likely that many are being pushed northward by a series of complex weather patterns over the equatorial Pacific Ocean known as “El Nino.” Because these weather patterns generally move from west to east, the Pacific coast of North America is often dramatically impacted by the effects of “El Nino.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted that the 2015-16 “El Nino” may be the strongest in decades. Affected areas will see a warming in ocean temperatures, unusually strong currents and heavy rainfall resulting in flooding.

“It’s possible that the stronger currents are pushing more turtles north, out of their usual range, and then preventing them from returning to warmer waters,” Mark told the Oceanscape Network during a visit to the Aquarium’s rehabilitation center. The Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Seattle Aquarium are called in for these special cases because they have appropriate rehab facilities for sea turtles.

“When we started seeing this trend increasing, we knew we had to expand our turtle holding area,” said Evonne Mochon-Collura, Assistant Curator of Fishes and Invertebrates. “We expect to get more turtles in before the ”El Nino” finally wears itself out.”

Killed By Kindness

When sea turtles end up in the colder waters, their bodies begin to shut down. Unlike marine mammals which maintain constant body temperatures regardless of ocean conditions, reptiles like turtles are always the same temperature as the water around them. This physiological condition is called ectothermy. As the turtles’ bodies get colder, they become unable to swim and may wash ashore on local beaches.

According to Mark, there have been some incidents where well-meaning beachcombers have found turtles and pushed them back into the surf.

“In probably all these cases, these people had the best intentions,” he said. “But really, if you find a turtle stranded on an Oregon beach, the worst thing you can do is push it back into the water. Eventually the animal will get so cold it will die.”

To help save more turtles from this fate, a reporting and rescue procedure exists in Oregon. Citizens who spot turtles on the beach are asked to call the Oregon State Police Wildlife Hotline at (800) 452-7888. Callers should be prepared to tell the operator where the animal is located and estimate its size so the appropriate number of people can be sent to the area. Turtles can weigh in excess of one hundred pounds and may require multiple rescuers to remove them from the beach safely. Once emergency services are activated. the caller should stay in the area if possible to monitor the turtle and prevent other people and animals from approaching it.

Saving Them Slowly

Once the turtle arrives at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, it is placed immediately into veterinary care. Often the animal’s body temperature is already critically low — a condition called hypothermia — and it must be slowly increased.

“This is a really slow process,” said Evonne. “You can’t just immerse the turtle in warm water because it will go into immediate shock and die. Instead, we gradually increase the temperature of the water over a period of days, which also increases the temperature of the turtle’s body.”

As the reptile warms, normal body functions will return.

“We actually get pretty excited when one of our rehab turtles poops for the first time,” laughed Mark. “If it’s pooping, that means its internal organs are beginning to work again.”

Of course, the Aquarium cannot release sea turtles back into Oregon waters without retraumatizing them. Instead, the animals are flown to rehabilitation facilities in southern California where they will continue to receive care before finally being released back into the wild.

Evonne said: “Even the release process has to be carefully timed. Often the release rehab facility will wait for when ocean conditions and currents are best for a successful release, but this could mean waiting weeks or even months. Still, it’s important because you want to make sure the animal has the best possible chance of survival.”

For more about this subject, see Encountering Wildlife.

Related Information: Storm-Battered Sea Turtle Splashes into Better Health (December 18, 2015) | Turtles Thunder and Lightning Take New Year by Storm (January 21, 2016)

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