Thursday, December 31, 2009

Turtle Patrol

Turtle stranding season is in full swing now as we are seeing more and more stunned young turtles wash up. Most help we recieve requires volunteers walking the beaches on the sound side of the barrier islands to look for anything that has been stranded overnight. Recently I have been able to find 3 turtles, unfortunately no live ones. One of the smaller ones was fresh dead, so fresh that we probably only missed him by 12 hours or so. I did have one live one about 2 weeks ago that was transported successfully to rehab. It leaves you feeling slightly depressed when you meet ones you just missed being ablr to save. The turtle in the picture washed up and had been dead for a couple of days im guessing becasue it was starting to smell a little bit. This is a young Kemp's Ridley approx. 8-12 years old. They take 25 years to reach reproductive age so small as they may seem they actually have a number of years behind them.

Most of the strandings that we find are about the same age. This is becasue they are most vulnerable at this size to disease, cold, and wind. As youngsters these turtles are far out to sea, traveling thousands of miles. Being no bigger than the palm of your hand, they are living life near the ocean surface a ways out to sea feeding on plankton and numerous other floating particles that they can find. As they become larger they then return to the shallows where they can feed on larger creatures such as jellyfish, crabs, and snails. Some turtles like the Loggerhead have powerful jaws that can crush any hard shell and your fingers too if you accidently get them too close.
When the turtles first start coming into the shallows near Cape Hatteras they are still small enough that they can be pushed around my ocean currents. Both the Labarodar currents from the north and the Gulf Stream from the south meet at Cape Point causing strong water moments and awkward travel for these animals. During the winter months the goal is to find their way into the gulf stream which they will then stay in the warmer waters until spring. If the crazy island weather hits and there is a sudden cold snap, this is when we are on the lookout for cold stunned turtles. Being so small they do not have enough body fat yet to control temperature. If their body temperature drops too low this will cause a shutdown in their body systems and they become pretty helpless. We come then to find them washed up on the beaches unable to return to the water. These are the turtle that we know didnt make it to the Gulf Stream in time for the colder winter weather.

When coming across a turtle on the beach the first step to to see if there are any signs of life, which can sometimes be difficult if a turtle is really lathargic and out of it. By touching the back of the neck one can sometimes see some head movement. Also, tapping the inside of the front flipper will also trigger some reaction. Sometimes if we are still not sure we poke at the eye slightly to see if it will blink. If a turtle is found alive, the first thing to do it get it out of the water and off the beach. These animals can not be warmed quickly however ( 1 degree F per hour) wrapping them in a towel and keeping them dry is the best way to do so when they are being transported to the vet. There they will be treatting and hopefully released after some time in rehab. Last year over 100 turtles were found on the beaches and 38 successfully returned.

Coming to find a Kemp's Ridley in the sound side of the island (fresh dead).

Wind blown and tired...but a rewarding feeling.