“Go team turtle!” National Aquarium rehabilitation manager Kate Shaffer said on Tuesday evening as she and National Aquarium Curator of Animal Rescue Jennifer Dittmar finished a meeting to prepare twelve volunteers for the task at hand. The team worked systematically to prepare twenty-nine Kemp's ridley sea turtles and two green sea turtles for a thirteen hour trip down to Canaveral National Seashore in New Smyrna Beach, Florida for their release.
Volunteers Cynthia Ward of Fells Point and Theresa Wunder of Parkville waded in the rehabilitation pool to net turtles and took turns handing them off to Ashley Middleton of York, PA who was part of a team working the “turtle elevator” which comprised of a storage container, moving straps and a carabiner engineered by Shaffer. Fellow volunteers walked turtles over to Dittmar and Shaffer who gave them fluids and looked on as they received artificial tear ointment for their eyes and lubrication to the backs of their shells in preparation for the trip.
All of the turtles being prepared for release were stranded as ‘cold-stunned’ turtles along the Massachusetts coast. Dittmar described cold-stunning as a type of hypothermia for reptiles. Their body systems begin to slowly shut down, and their immune system becomes suppressed, which can cause secondary infections and long-term health concerns.
The turtles were pulled off beaches and some received care at New England Aquarium, National Marine Life Center and Woods Hole Science Aquarium in Massachusetts before joining the thirteen turtles that were being rehabilitated in Baltimore.
The National Aquarium’s goal is to release animals as soon as they are medically cleared. Dittmar said “It is bitter-sweet to see the turtles go but our end goal is to get the turtles healthy and back into their natural environment”.
Volunteers helped to load turtles into banana boxes lined with cardboard and towels and transported them safely into vans for the drive down to Florida. They made a stop to pick up three more turtles being rehabilitated by the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach before all thirty-four turtles were successfully released back into the ocean on Wednesday afternoon. Shaffer said, “It is a great sense of accomplishment whenever we can release a large group of animals back into their natural environment, especially when we team up with other partners within the stranding network to contribute to the conservation of endangered species”.