How the New England Aquarium Averted a Sea Turtle Apocalypse

The Kemp’s Ridley is the world’s most endangered sea turtle. Last fall, 665 of them suddenly washed up on Cape Cod. Nobody is sure why. The effort to save them was nothing short of miraculous. But will it happen again?


Photo by Toan Trinh

Number 520 is agitated. Scooped from a pool of tepid water by three young staffers on this steamy August morning, Number 520 flails and thrashes as they try to plunge a needle into its leathery neck. The team has only three minutes to get the necessary blood sample. A young woman clutches Number 520’s brown and white head and smooth beak, and slips the syringe through its skin and into the jugular vein. The resulting vial of red liquid is rushed down the hall and placed in a centrifuge for detailed analysis.

Number 520 is a Kemp’s Ridley turtle, the most endangered species of sea turtle on earth. Most years, in November and December, a few dozen of them get trapped in Cape Cod Bay. But last year a record-smashing 665 Kemp’s Ridleys washed up on Cape beaches. Teams of volunteers from the Massachusetts Audubon Society patrolled the shore, scooping up the stranded turtles and rushing them to New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center, a sprawling warehouse in Quincy equipped with pools, tanks, and an arsenal of veterinary equipment.

The blitz of endangered turtles floored Charlie Innis, director of animal health at the New England Aquarium. “It started as a trickle, and it seemed like a relatively normal year,” he recalls. “And then around November 18, we received a few dozen in one day, and a few dozen the next day. And then the numbers just stayed that way. There was one day in late November where we admitted over 100 live turtles.”

Many of them were juvenile, and, like Number 520, too young for researchers to be able to determine the animal’s sex. As intakes soared, the team set up an emergency triage system; turtles were divvied up based on vital signs. Those that were relatively well off and conscious were put in pools almost immediately. Others were placed in a customized cabinet—a turtle ICU, as Innis calls it—into which oxygen is pumped. But the huge volume of turtles overwhelmed the Aquarium’s resources, and they began shipping batches of the reptilian refugees throughout the country. By the end of December, Innis says, nearly every aquarium from Massachusetts to Texas had taken in the endangered creatures.

The care that’s been paid to Number 520 shows that bringing an endangered sea turtle back from the brink is an undertaking of science and medicine that rivals what goes on in the hallways of Boston’s finest hospitals. Today’s blood test isn’t just about the health of one turtle—it’s also part of an intensive research effort that could help shore up litigation with oil giant BP. And even after nearly a year of robust care from attentive experts, Number 520 isn’t out of the weeds yet.

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Kemp’s Ridleys once thrived along the Gulf Coast of southern Texas and Mexico. In the 1940s, it was not uncommon for droves of 100,000 to descend upon a beach during nesting season, transforming the soft white sand into a mosaic of dark green shells. But decades of development, pollution, and industrial fishing annihilated the species and its habitat. By the 1980s, the number of reproductively viable females dipped to a few hundred, putting them at risk of extinction. Today, after decades of extensive conservation efforts, the population of mature females hovers around 10,000 and the species remains classified as “critically endangered.”

Though the numbers are low, the yearly nesting of Kemp’s Ridleys remains an awe-inducing display of nature that the National Marine Fisheries Service calls “one of the most unique synchronized nesting habits in the natural world.” Starting around May, the females make their way to the shores of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and lay approximately 100 eggs, which take about two months to incubate. Nowadays, it is estimated that 95 percent of Kemp’s Ridleys hatch on just a handful of Mexican beaches.

After the shell cracks, it’s a mad dash for survival. “They call it the ‘frenzy period,’” Innis says. “As soon as they get into the water they swim in a very frenzied but directed way. They’re swimming constantly for days, just to get as far offshore as they can.”

But very few Kemp’s Ridleys actually make it from egg to ocean to adulthood. According to some estimates, only one in 1,000 eggs will yield a survivor.

As one of the smallest marine turtles in the world—adults top out at two feet and 100 pounds—Kemp’s Ridleys are prey to all sorts of predators. They spend the first years of their life in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, where food is plentiful and predators are easier to dodge. However, little is known about this stage of their life, Innis explains. The hard-to-reach habitat and tiny population pose challenges for researchers.

So how do they move from the warm waters of Mexico to the Cape? Innis posits that the Kemp’s Ridleys that land in Cape Cod Bay are swept up in the Gulf Stream while chasing a food source north. It’s a classic bait-and-trap situation. The geography of Cape Cod Bay is difficult for the reptiles to navigate. Many species of sea turtles evolved tens of millions of years ago, when landmasses looked much different than what we’re familiar with. “Cape Cod itself is just a sand bar that’s a relatively recent geographic phenomenon,” Innis says. “Historically, these turtles probably just cruised past the east coast without any incident.”

The leading theory behind sea turtles’ astute directional sense is that it’s tied to the earth’s magnetic field. While it has served them well for millennia, Cape Cod Bay causes their internal GPS to go haywire. Many end up bouncing between Sandwich and Provincetown, unable to figure out how to circumvent the Cape and head due south. “Then suddenly in November the water temperature starts dropping. And normally they would move out of there, but their magnetic sense is trying to send them south rather than north,” Innis explains.

And so it was for Number 520. It beat the odds and traveled all the way up the eastern seaboard only to end up circling the drain on the cold coast of Massachusetts.

When it arrived at the New England Aquarium’s facility on November 25, 2014, its eyes were cloudy, its mouth was full of sand and mucus, its heart was barely beating, and its lungs were ravaged by infection. Eventually—as part of a treatment regimen that would include a dozen blood tests, ten sets of X-rays, one tracheal culture, two bronchoscopies, one lung biopsy, one CT scan, and one blood culture—Innis would discover that Number 520 had a severe case of lung pneumonia due to Mycobacterium chelonae, bacteria that belong to the same family as tuberculosis. Too sick to eat, Number 520 was tube-fed for six weeks.

Still, chances of survival were slim and everything appeared to be stacked against this turtle.

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Photographs by Toan Trinh

As director of animal health at the aquarium, Innis isn’t supposed to play favorites, but he simply loves turtles. Walking through the vast animal care center in Quincy, he points out a few bonnethead sharks—they look like miniature hammerheads—and a tank filled with garden eels, which appear to be standing at attention and are every bit as creepy as you can imagine. Sure, sharks and eels have a gee-whiz element to them, but it’s turtles that ignite Innis’ intellect.

A few minutes into this impromptu tour, he smirks and says that we should make sure to check out the radioactive turtle over in the corner. “We can’t handle him yet because he’s still radioactive to some degree,” he warns. This creature, also a Kemp’s Ridley that was stranded in the 2014 season, was badly injured. To see how it was healing, Innis had recently sent the turtle to a facility run by Tufts University’s veterinary program, where it underwent a bone scan—a procedure that requires an injection of radioactive tracers. The effects will linger for a day or two.

“I’ve had turtles as pets since I was five years old,” Innis says, “and that developed into a scientific and academic interest.” Today, he continues to care for turtles both at the aquarium and at his home in Milford, where he grew up. At 46, he is laid-back and speaks in the subdued cadence of someone who has probably been peed on by a fair share of animals. After all, wildlife conservation and veterinary science is hard and dirty work.

During the more than two decades Innis has spent doting on turtles, new threats have emerged at breakneck speed, far outpacing the number of viable solutions. “In general, turtles across the world are not doing well, whether it’s sea turtles or freshwater turtles or terrestrial tortoises,” he laments.

This summer he got an intimate look at a major source of species destruction when he traveled to the Philippines, where local law enforcement broke up a poaching ring that had harvested more than 4,000 rare Palawan forest turtles. The habitat of this species is a tiny cluster of islands half the size of Connecticut, Innis says. Up until that point, Innis wasn’t even sure if there were 4,000 of these turtles left in the wild. “It’s not an impossible scenario to imagine the extinction of a species from an event like that.”

While the Philippines incident was bad, it is BP’s infamous environmental catastrophe, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, that perhaps most motivates Innis’ inner conservationist. The acute impact of the spill was devastating—more than 600 dead turtles, nearly 500 of them Kemp’s Ridleys, according to the National Wildlife Federation. And there was the potential that the oil and the dispersants used in clean-up efforts could inflict long-term damage on the nesting grounds.

More than five years after the spill, arguments and threats of lawsuits still fly. And that’s where today’s blood test of Number 520 enters the picture. During the oil spill, many sea turtles had to be rescued from the Gulf of Mexico and transferred to rehab facilities in Florida. A lot of them didn’t survive.

“As part of the litigation with BP,” Innis explains, “the government is trying to make the case that the oil spill had an effect on the turtles. And BP is potentially going to be able to counter that by saying, ‘Well, how do you know that the problem the turtles had were from the oil spill and not from transporting them for a day to get them to Florida?’”

By carefully documenting hundreds of sea turtles’ stress responses, including Number 520, Innis and colleagues are building a robust data set to demonstrate that turtles have a predictable stress response. “To be able to show that in an oil spill scenario that the turtles are in much worse condition might help support the legal case,” he says. “That’s why when we do collect their blood, we try to collect it as quickly as possible, so that the blood is minimally affected by our handling time.”

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Photo by Toan Trinh

After Innis’ team gathered the blood sample from Number 520 and delivered it to the centrifuge, they checked the animal’s heart with a Doppler monitor. A healthy “woooosh-thump, woooosh-thump” came over the small speaker. Later that day, another set of X-rays showed that the turtle had at last cleared the stubborn infection from its lungs. With a clean bill of health, Number 520 appeared ready to return home.

A few days later, it was shipped to Assateague Island in Maryland, where, on August 30, after 278 days of care, the once errant reptile plodded through the sand and disappeared into the surf. It was among the last turtles rescued from 2014 to be released.

One could argue that there’s a silver lining to last year’s deluge of Kemp’s Ridleys—that the unexpected influx indicates the species is rebounding. Innis likes to think that’s the case, but he suspects there’s a much more nuanced explanation that has to do with weather patterns, food sources, ocean currents, and a dozen other variables.

It is impossible to predict what this November will bring. Innis never imagined that 665 of the world’s most endangered sea turtles would end up stranded on the Cape in a matter of weeks.

Now, as the season shifts and water temperatures drop, he and his team are ready for whatever washes ashore.