New England Aquarium Rescues, Nurses and Releases 655-Pound Leatherback Sea Turtle
September 24, 2012

New England Aquarium Rescues, Nurses and Releases 655-Pound Leatherback Sea Turtle

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

A 655-pound leatherback sea turtle, a member of the largest reptile species in the world, has been released back into the ocean off Cape Cod after marine scientists at Boston´s New England Aquarium nursed it back to health.

The turtle, measuring a staggering 7 feet long, was treated for dehydration and shock, after it was found stranded near the tip of the cape in Truro last Wednesday just before dark. Scientists said the endangered specimen was underweight and lethargic, and had sustained an injury to its left front flipper.

After a few days in the care of aquarium staff, the turtle regained its strength and was released off Harwichport on Saturday.

Connie Merigo, the aquarium´s rescue director, said the turtle was spotted by a staff member of the Massachusetts Audubon Society at Pamet Harbor as high tide approached. The aquarium was alerted and staff and volunteers, along with help from the Audubon Society and International Fund for Animal Welfare staff, brought the turtle to the aquarium´s Animal Care Center in Quincy by Thursday morning.

The staff discovered the sea turtle was about 100 pounds underweight and had low blood sugar, as well as the damaged flipper. The turtle was given a sugar solution by injection, plus vitamin and mineral supplements, steroids, and antibiotics to stave off infections, according to the aquarium´s head veterinarian Dr. Charles Innis.

“We were fairly aggressive with this turtle because we have not been successful the last two leatherbacks we´ve had,” Innis said.

In the last 40 years, the New England Aquarium has only encountered five leatherbacks on shore. One died shortly after release back into the ocean, and another died on the beach as aquarium staff tried to care for it. The other two, rescued in 2005 and 2011, were taken to the aquarium for care and neither survived as well.

One of the problems with caring for these giant reptiles, is the fact they are open-sea creatures and do not grasp the concept of barriers. In other words, they do not encounter walls in their native surroundings, and putting leatherbacks in a tank does not bode well for them.

To keep the sea turtle from repeatedly crashing into the pool walls, staff wrapped a large harness around it that allowed a handler to steer the turtle away from the pool edges. In the wild, these magnificent beasts do not encounter barriers they cannot swim around.

“They´re not used to any sort of restrains, they´ve never seen a wall,” Merigo told The Boston Globe. “They´ll continue to struggle, they´ll continue to swim forward.”

After being cared for, the turtle was released back into the ocean, where it will continue to be monitored through a satellite feed, said Merigo. Shortly after its release, staff tracked the turtle moving south toward a jellyfish colony off the Nantucket coast where it could find food.

Merigo said the satellite feed is showing that the turtle has regained energy as it has moved a considerable distance since being released.

Though the turtle grew stronger during its two day recovery, Innis said he was not sure why the turtle had washed ashore or whether it will survive in the ocean. Leatherbacks rarely survive captivity; even just a few days can be lethal, due to the extreme stress it puts on them.

“The choices were really to euthanize him, keep him in rehabilitation, or release him,” Innis said. “He was too strong to euthanize, and too strong to keep. ... We elected to release him, but with a little discomfort.”

The team at Quincy were not able to determine an exact age, but estimated the male leatherback was around 25 to 30 years old. Most healthy adult leatherbacks can be more than 1,000 pounds. These gentle giants arrive in Cape Cod and the surrounding islands in June to feed on jellyfish, then migrate south for the winter in late September and October.