Coming in from the cold: working to save a green sea turtle far from home

Imagine you are a young green sea turtle.

Before the storms came and the sea became very cold, you were swimming in a warmer current. In warm water, you are a strong, graceful swimmer. Your powerful front flippers propel you through the water with the ease of a bird soaring through the air.

But now you’re cold. So cold that you can’t move. You’ve been floating at the surface, too cold to swim, for many days. You’re also hungry. You can’t find food because you can’t move your flippers to swim. You float, carried helplessly in a current that is getting colder and colder, waiting for something to happen. Sharks and other predators are looking for an easy meal. And right now, you are an easy target.

The storms started coming about a month ago. One after another, bringing high winds to the surface waters where you need to come up to breathe. The wind, waves and currents were strong.  You couldn’t swim away when the sea became even colder. Finally, after drifting for countless days, the waves pushed you onto a beach. There you lay, weak, starving and too cold to move.

Help is on the way

Brian Parker, a member of the Makah Tribe, found this stranded green sea turtle while walking on Shi Shi Beach (pronounced shy-shy) on the outer Washington coast on Tuesday, November 16, 2021. His next step started a chain reaction of people throughout our local conservation community who were ready to step up to save this helpless animal.

A green sea turtle laying on a beach with its eyes closed. A piece of kelp is wrapped around the turtles left front flipper.Green sea turtle stranded on Shi Shi Beach. Image credit: Brian Parker.

Planes, ferries and automobiles

Brian contacted Elizabeth (Liz) Allyn, marine mammal technician (staff), Makah Tribe; and Jonathan (Jon) Scordino, marine mammal biologist (staff), Makah Tribe. They called Dr. Heather Harris, a wildlife veterinarian from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for advice. Normally evacuation is the next step for a stranded sea turtle, but that wasn’t possible over land: the five roads leading into the area around Neah Bay were cut off by flooding and mudslides from the most recent storm. So, Brian, Liz and Jon hiked the turtle off the beach and took it to Jon’s house near Neah Bay. Liz reached out to Dr. Shawn Larson, the curator of conservation research at the Seattle Aquarium, who is an authorized specialist and knows what to do.

Shawn recommended they place insulating towels between the turtle and the floor of the garage and over the turtle’s back. It was important to keep the turtle from getting colder, but equally important not to warm the animal too quickly. If warmed too quickly, it could suffer a systemic shock that would possibly kill it. After contacting NOAA’s West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Jon called Casey Mclean, executive director and veterinary nurse of SR3 (Sealife Response, Rehab and Research) in Des Moines, who started working with Jon on evacuation plans. They worked with Rite Bros Aviation and arranged for the turtle to be airlifted from Sekiu Airport near Neah Bay to Port Angeles on Wednesday, November 17.

Casey and her assistant Rietta Rain met the plane, helped transfer the turtle to the SR3 ambulance, and drove it onto a ferry bound for Seattle. The Seattle Aquarium is one of just two permit-holding sea turtle stabilization facilities in Washington state, authorized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to provide veterinary treatment and rehabilitative care for five species of threatened or endangered species of sea turtles. When the team arrived at the Seattle Aquarium, Dr. Caitlin Hadfield, the Aquarium’s senior veterinarian and board-certified specialist in zoological medicine; Lindy McMorran, veterinary technician; and Shawn were waiting. Together, the team began a 24/7 effort to stabilize and rehabilitate the turtle.

A green sea turtle laying inside a cardboard box, which is inside a small airplane.
The turtle in the airplane that would evacuate it to Port Angeles. Image credit: Makah Fisheries Management.

Condition: critical

On arrival, the team completed a triage assessment. The turtle weighed 57 pounds and was very thin with a lot of abnormal fluid buildup. Its body temperature was 48°F, a far cry from a normal temperature of 75°F. It was critically hypothermic and could barely move.

A green sea turtle laying on a table in an animal hospital area. Three women are standing around the turtle checking the turtle's vital signs and monitoring it's health.
The turtle arrived at the Seattle Aquarium in critical condition. Image credit: Shawn Larson.

The team took blood samples; used ultrasound to look at the turtle’s heart, kidneys, lungs and digestive tract; and assessed wounds and swollen tissue on its flippers. Algae covered its head and shell. Its heart rate was weak and slow, at about one beat per minute instead of a normal 14–24 beats per minute. Even though it had not eaten in a while, its intestines were still full of old digesta (or food undergoing digestion) that got stuck when its digestive tract stopped moving because of the cold. Its bodily systems had shut down because of the low water temperature.

With the help of staff from the Seattle Aquarium and SR3, the team began the slow process of raising the turtle’s temperature—no more than 1°F degree every four hours—while using fluids and medications to try to stabilize it. By the morning of Monday, November 22, the turtle’s temperature had reached 72°F. The team also provided breathing stimulation, making sure the turtle took deep breaths regularly—round the clock at first. More good news came as the turtle began to swim for longer periods in a circular rehab pool filled with temperature-controlled seawater, started showing some diving activity, and showed some interest in food. A big milestone was when the turtle first passed some of the old digesta in its intestines; this is critical to improving the health of the intestinal wall and getting rid of the old food and the bacteria within it to reduce the risk of a life-threatening infection.

A recovering green sea turtle being held by three woman who are resting it on a towel along the edge of a small pool.
The Seattle Aquarium and SR3 teams have been helping the turtle swim in a small seawater pool. Image credit: Grant Abel.

Despite these improvements, the turtle is not out of danger yet. While it’s moving a little and able to swim, it tires quickly. But the team is growing cautiously optimistic that the turtle might survive now that it’s survived its first few days in critical care. Given that there is now hope for its survival, the Makah Tribe has named it Shi Shi, for the beach on which Brian Parker found it.

A woman wearing waders, standing in a pool of water, assisting a sea turtle to swim as it recovers.
Amy Olsen supervises the turtle as it swims in a small seawater pool. Image credit: Erin Meyer.

How did it get here?

Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) are generally found in tropical and sub-tropical waters that are warmer than 68°F (20°C). Water temperature is important because sea turtles are ectotherm reptiles, meaning they can’t regulate their own body temperature—rather, they rely on the temperature of the environment around them (known as poikilothermy). When they enter winter Washington waters, which are currently less than 50°F (10°C), they become hypothermic or cold-shocked and get into serious trouble.

We don’t know for sure where this green sea turtle came from but based on genetic studies on green sea turtles previously stranded in Washington, it’s very likely that this individual is from the Eastern Pacific stock. These turtles nest in Mexico on the Revillagigedos Islands in Michoacán, Mexico when they are mature, but we know relatively little about where the young turtles range. This juvenile is a long way from where it should be at this time of year.

Green sea turtles are listed as an endangered species internationally by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and as threatened in the U.S. by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), with the exception of the breeding populations in Florida that are considered endangered. They are subject to a variety of human-caused threats. A combination of climate change, bycatch in fishing gear, harvest of turtles and eggs, disease, loss and degradation of nesting and foraging habitat, ocean pollution, marine debris, and vessel strikes have their decimated populations over the last century.

In this case, it seems climate change may be the threat that deposited this sea turtle on Shi Shi Beach, near the home of our friends in the Makah Tribe. As our atmosphere and ocean warm, we are seeing increasingly strong storm intensity and frequency. Over the last month in Western Washington, we have been subjected to multiple intense weather patterns including “bomb cyclones” and cold fronts causing “atmospheric rivers.”

Radar imagery of a stormfront off the coast of Washington State.
We will never know with certainty, but the severe storm we experienced on October 24 may partly explain how the turtle washed up here. Image credit: Earth.nullschool.net.

This historically wet fall in the Pacific Northwest has caused flooding, mudslides, power outages—and six sea turtle strandings on Washington and Oregon beaches. In an average year, we expect to see up to seven sea turtles between Halloween and Valentine’s Day. This year, although we’re not even a month past Halloween, NOAA's West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network has already seen six. Three of them were found dead. Two died while rescue teams in Oregon tried to save them. And now, number six, Shi Shi, is receiving emergency care at the Seattle Aquarium.

What’s next?

Before we get too excited about next steps, we need to get Shi Shi stable, a lot stronger, able to swim unsupervised and ready for the secondary consequences of cold stunning—which often include infections from the damage done.  As soon as Shi Shi is stabilized, we will transfer it to SR3’s new marine animal hospital in Des Moines to continue rehabilitation for a few more months. We have room at the Seattle Aquarium to care for only one turtle at a time, so when Shi Shi is ready, we will transfer it to SR3’s care so that we can be ready to step up to help the next cold-shocked turtle that needs critical care.
 

Shi Shi swims in a small seawater pool at the Seattle Aquarium.

After a few months, if Shi Shi continues to recover, it will likely be transferred via a flight on a FedEx, UPS or U.S. Coast Guard plane to the care of SeaWorld in San Diego. The veterinarians there also have expertise in sea turtle care and help the turtles strengthen over time, until they are swimming capably in larger pools. The turtles are usually fitted with a battery-powered satellite tag as well as flipper tags, and then released at the height of summer off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, to find the Mexican green sea turtle population at nearby breeding grounds where they most likely hatched.

Shi Shi is the 30th sea turtle that the Seattle Aquarium has worked to rehabilitate since 1981. We don’t know if Shi Shi is female, but the team here thinks that is likely. If we can successfully rehabilitate her and, ultimately, she is released to find her breeding grounds in Mexico, she might grow into adulthood and lay eggs that help her endangered species continue to survive.

Thank you

The Seattle Aquarium is committed to regenerating marine ecosystems and marine life. Changing ocean conditions will likely result in more sea turtle standings and we stand ready to help the next turtles that strand in Washington state.

We thank everyone who stepped up to work 24/7 to save this turtle—our friends in Makah Tribe, NOAA, Rite Bros Aviation, SR3 and our own Seattle Aquarium staff and volunteers.

What to do if you spot a stranded animal on the beach?

Visit NOAA’s West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network website for information on what to do if you find a stranded marine mammal, sea turtle or seabird. 

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