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On a July morning at the New England Aquarium Animal Care Center in Quincy, a clinical volunteer checked the heart rate of a Kemp's ridley sea turtle with a Doppler instrument as a part of its physical exam.
A steady, healthy heartbeat radiated through the device's speaker.
Kemp's ridley sea turtles have an average heart rate of 40 to 50 beats per minute. However, around this time of year, volunteers often have turtles come into the hospital whose hearts are beating only five to 10 times every minute.
Those low heart rates come from a condition called cold stunning.
"So the most common reason we see turtles admitted to our hospital is because of this condition that's similar to hypothermia," said Charles Innis, veterinarian and director of animal health at New England Aquarium.
"Because turtles are reptiles and their body temperature’s dependent on the environment," he added, "when water starts getting cold in late fall and early winter, their movements become much slower, their heart rates drop, their body functions in general slow down, and eventually they’re so weak that they get washed up onto beaches."
After turtles wash up onto beaches around Cape Cod Bay, they’re brought to the aquarium's hospital by volunteers from a nature conservation group in Massachusetts. The hospital typically receives two shipments a day that can include anywhere from one to 100 turtles per shipment.
Innis said the turtles are placed into cardboard boxes and then lined up throughout the hospital’s hallway.
"We’re sequentially going through each case, weighing them, measuring them, checking their heart rates, doing physical exams, identifying them as individuals with a bracelet around their flipper or a number on the back of their shell, and then they move through our hospital system," Innis said.
The next step is to raise the turtle’s body temperature.
The hospital has a separate room with an intensive care unit that can hold up to 15 turtles. The chamber slowly warms the turtles up five degrees each day until they're back to their preferred body temperature of 75 degrees, which typically takes about five days.
There's another, bigger temperature-controlled room next door that can fit even more turtles.
If the turtles are having trouble breathing, there's also a ventilator available that's specially designed to deliver a breath every five or so minutes to mimic their breathing pattern in the ocean.
In addition to being warmed up, most turtles are treated for pneumonia.
During that July morning, turtle No. 138, named Geyser, received antibiotics for the illness intravenously.
Volunteer Sarah Capozzoli gently grasped Geyser’s sides while senior biologist Julika Wocial gave Geyser the shot. Geyser didn't flinch.
Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium, said pneumonia is one of the most common illnesses the turtles come in with because when they're cold stunned, their immune systems are compromised.
"They’re also not respiring well. They’re not getting a good breath, they’re probably getting some fluid in their lungs and then they get the pneumonia that’ll set in, and then that pneumonia can sit there for weeks," LaCasse said.
Some turtles die in the hospital of their pneumonia. However, many others, like Geyser, recover well.
Innis looked at the turtle’s X-rays and saw some signs of scarring on the lungs.
"But he does not have any really obvious evidence of pneumonia at this point, which is good because he previously had pretty bad pneumonia and it tells us that his antibiotic therapy has been working well," Innis said.
One particular challenge in the hospital is getting the turtles to eat. It can take hours and about 25 volunteers to coax the turtles into eating.
"They’re not familiar with eating in captivity, they may not recognize the food items that we’re providing to them, and so a lot of our time during the day after they’re stable is spent with volunteers and staff trying to coax each turtle to accept their first food," Innis said.
Innis said some turtles don't eat for two weeks, which isn't a problem because they have slow metabolisms. However, if more than two weeks goes by, the turtles are fed through tubes.
Back in July, two volunteers placed metal buckets of herring and squid on a table. It was time to feed the eight turtles that were still recovering from being cold stunned the winter before.
"This turtle’s done feeding," said Lydia McDonald, a clinical volunteer. "He’s one of our really good eaters, so he eats very quickly."
McDonald said as the turtles are being fed, volunteers are watching how they interact with the food.
"So looking for use of all four flippers, looking to see how well they’re turning in the water, if they’re able to dive well, if they’re able to surface well for breaths, that sort of thing," McDonald said.
After about six to eight months, most of the turtles are ready to be released back into the ocean off the outer beaches of Cape Cod, where they can begin their journey south.
The New England Aquarium Animal Care Center is designed for about 80 sea turtles. The hospital partners with other facilities across the country to transport turtles to recover elsewhere if needed.
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative and was first published by Rhode Island Public Radio.
This segment aired on October 27, 2017.
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