Refugees find winter home

Recuperating: Four stranded sea turtles are in good hands at the National Aquarium until ocean temperatures warm.

December 23, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Battered by the surf, nearly frozen by the sea and with five stitches above its right eye, the young turtle known as 02-21LK may be feeling a bit under the weather these days.

So most mornings, the Kemp's ridley sea turtle is plucked from a tank at the National Aquarium and fed by hand a spoonful of fish with antibiotics rolled up in it.

This creature - the world's rarest type of sea turtle - is on the mend, aquarium staffers say. They refer to it as 02-21LK because it is only a visitor and was the 21st rescued animal brought to the aquarium in 2002. LK is short for Lepidochelys kempii, the scientific name for the species.

About the size of a dinner plate, it is believed to be 1 or 2 years old - and should probably be forgiven for reacting like a child to its medicine.

"Sometimes it'll spit out the pill," said David Schofield, manager of ocean health programs at the aquarium.

02-21LK is one of four young Kemp's ridleys that will spend the winter recuperating in the marine mammal pavilion's critical care unit after being stranded on the beaches of Cape Cod. They were rescued last month after they began migrating south for the winter and became "cold stunned" by the chilly waters - the aquatic equivalent of hypothermia, Schofield said.

"Large numbers are cold stunned every year," said Jack Musick, head of the vertebrate ecology program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and coordinator of Virginia's sea turtle stranding program. "They get cold, they pop to the surface, and they lose their ability to swim."

At Cape Cod this year, 102 sea turtles were rescued - most of them Kemp's ridleys - and distributed to East Coast and Gulf Coast aquariums for treatment. All are expected to be released when ocean waters warm up in the spring.

The turtles shipped to Baltimore spent their first two weeks recuperating at the New England Aquarium in Boston. A National Aquarium staff member then drove them to Baltimore, where they were examined for cuts and bruises and their blood was tested for infections. X-rays showed no broken bones, and test results showed no life-threatening infections.

But the antibiotics are being given to all four as a precaution to quell minor infections, aquarium officials said.

"They look good, they're doing well," said Dr. Marisa Giardina, the aquarium veterinarian caring for the turtles. But the turtles are not fully recovered, still may have weakened immune systems and are being kept at the aquarium until spring to prevent them from developing infections.

Their current home is a pair of steel tanks equipped with ultraviolet lights to simulate sunlight. Water temperatures are maintained at the same 78-degree level found in the tropical waters where they would normally spend the winter, Schofield said. The aquarium also has three other vacant hospital pools that can accommodate anything from a baby turtle to a full-grown manatee.

Musick said that Kemp's rid- leys are the rarest of the seven species of sea turtles because they have only one natural nesting ground, the beaches of Rancho Nuevo in Mexico. Only 3,000 nesting females are known to exist.

Classified by federal officials as an endangered species, they are far outnumbered by the better-known loggerhead sea turtle, a threatened species that has 60,000 nesting females, he said.

The number of Kemp's ridleys dwindled to about 350 nesting females in the mid-1980s because Mexicans would dig up their eggs and sell them as aphrodisiacs, he said. Many turtles also became tangled in shrimp nets and drowned, Musick said.

The species population has increased in recent years because of conservation efforts that include more turtle-friendly shrimp nets and the creation of a nesting ground at Padre Island, Texas, he said.

Musick said the rarity of the sea turtles is why such rescue efforts are important.

"I think it's humane to take care of them. And from a conservation standpoint, it's important to save as many of them as possible, because 3,000 nesting females still ain't a whole lot," he said.

Little is known about why the turtles become stranded at Cape Cod, but Schofield said they may be fooled by pockets of warm water that form along the edges of the Gulf Stream as it flows up the East Coast each fall. The warm pockets are enveloped by chillier water, which stuns the animals, he said.

All four of the sea turtles at the National Aquarium are expected to recover and be released sometime in the spring, Giardina and Schofield said. They are unsure how old the turtles are because it is difficult to estimate age when they are young. Their sex also will not be apparent until they become teen-agers.

But Musick said Kemp's ridleys can live to be 30, grow to be 3 feet long and weigh 100 pounds. Only 25 percent of them make their way around the southern tip of Florida and up the East Coast. But some reach as far north as New England, and a few spend summers in the Chesapeake Bay, he said.

The bay attracts about 10,000 sea turtles of all types each summer, most of them loggerheads, Musick said.

But life can be hard for sea turtles, particularly when they make the arduous journey south for the winter.

Schofield said the four turtles were not only cold stunned when they washed up on the beach near Dennis, Mass., but also had chipped shells from the churning sand and surf.

"They just totally got beat up," Schofield said.

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