THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

After a stay at the aquarium, endangered turtles are set free

By Jeffrey Fish
Globe Correspondent / July 15, 2010

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New England Aquarium released 10 endangered sea turtles back to the ocean yesterday from a Cape Cod beach.

The juvenile Kemp’s Ridley turtles, the world’s most endangered sea turtles, were set loose from Dowses Beach in Barnstable’s Osterville section.

The animals had been rescued by volunteers from the Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in November. The volunteers found the turtles on Cape Cod beaches, “severely hypothermic and near death,’’ aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said.

Every year, Kemp’s Ridleys travel to Cape Cod for the summer, when the water is warm. Most migrate back to warmer waters in the winter, but experts believe some young turtles get into trouble when they are swept north of the Cape by currents.

Since the turtles are still young — ages 2 to 4 — they are not strong enough to navigate back down the East Coast, so they end up stuck in Cape Cod Bay.

Because the turtles are coldblooded, their body temperatures decrease with the water temperature, LaCasse said. By November, their body temperatures are in the low 50s, a critical level. Then “the first winter winds drag them to the beaches of the Cape,’’ where volunteers patrol hundreds of miles of shoreline, looking to rescue them.

Once the turtles are rescued and brought to the aquarium for treatment, they begin their long healing process. They are warmed up five degrees each day until they reach their normal body temperature of about 70 degrees. They are also given shots to bolster their immune systems against pathogens, which reproduce rapidly when the turtles reach warm water.

It takes several weeks to get the turtles — many of them dehydrated, malnourished, and suffering from broken bones and shells — to eat, so that they can then get ready to be returned to their natural habitats.

The turtles released yesterday were the second-to-last batch released this summer, meaning they were among the sickest rescued turtles and took longer to heal. They were released from Cape Cod because of ideal 70 degree water temperatures. If the water is not warm enough, the turtles are shipped down the coast to a place where the water is warmer.

The turtles, all named by the aquarium after national parks or monuments, are expected to spend the summer south of Cape Cod, feeding on crabs, before they migrate to the Florida Panhandle in the fall.

Kemp’s Ridleys turtles are hatched on the western Gulf Coast near the Texas-Mexico border, and some have been affected by the BP oil spill. But those released on Cape Cod are likely to migrate only as far as the Atlantic or Gulf coasts of Florida, so they will not be affected by the spill, LaCasse said.

The young turtles will not return to the hatching grounds until they are about 15 years old, he said.

Eight more turtles are set to be released in August.

Jeffrey Fish can be reached at jfish@globe.com.

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