Vancouver, B.C. – An olive ridley sea turtle that usually inhabits tropical and subtropical waters was rescued by members of the public in Port Alberni on Sept. 30, 2019. Representatives from Fisheries and Oceans Canada transported him to Parksville to meet members of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (MMRC) team.
The adult male sea turtle — which weighed 26.9 kg. — had a body temperature of only 11 degrees Celsius, dangerously low compared to its ideal body temperature of over 20 degrees Celsius. This is only the fourth olive ridley sea turtle recorded in B.C. waters and staff members there have nicknamed the turtle “Berni,” after the community where he stranded. The team at MMRC rescued, rehabilitated and released Comber the sea turtle in 2016.
Berni appeared to be “cold-stunned,” said Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian for Vancouver Aquarium. Because sea turtles are cold-blooded, they depend entirely on their environment to control their body temperature. When that environment is too cold, sea turtles get hypothermic, also known as cold-stunning. Their heart and respiration rates slow down, leaving them unable to swim or forage. As a result, they become weak and are vulnerable to predators.
One possible reason for the appearance of a tropical or sub-tropical sea turtle appearing in B.C. waters might be what’s known as “the blob,” a warmer-than-usual area of water located in the Pacific Ocean, just off the west coast of North America. Haulena said that the blob can hurt everything from the smallest organism to the largest marine mammal because everything is connected, with cooler water generally meaning more oxygen. “That’s really important at a primary level, because it allows algae and other nutrients to form and metabolize up the chain, up the ecosystem.”
Another possible reason is that above-average sea temperatures often prompt unusual migrations. Sea turtles from Mexico and Central America sometimes ride warmer water currents into the cooler B.C. coastal region. Contaminants in their foraging grounds also adversely affect these turtles. The olive ridley sea turtle is the second smallest and most abundant of all sea turtles, yet it is still considered to be endangered. The olive ridley sea turtle is classified as vulnerable worldwide by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List.
Its mass nesting behaviour, called “arribada,” is often seen in nature documentaries; thousands of females gravitate to the same few beaches to lay their eggs in conical nests.
The plan is to gradually raise Berni’s temperature by slowly increasing the ambient temperature of the hospital. “Once he’s stronger and showing signs of responsiveness, staff will place him in a pool set at the same temperature as his body for short periods of time,” said Lindsaye Akhurst, manager of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. Members of MMRC staff are monitoring Berni closely and administering fluids to treat dehydration. Additional diagnostic testing, including bloodwork, ultrasound and radiographs, will continue over the coming days. Cold-stunning can result in pneumonia, so Berni is also being treated with antibiotics.
“Berni has a long road to recovery but he is responding to treatment. Once he’s stabilized, we will work closely with Canadian and U.S. authorities to get the permits that allow him to be released, in warmer waters,” said Akhurst.
Vancouver Aquarium® Marine Mammal Rescue Centre
The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, an Ocean Wise initiative, is a hospital for sick, injured or orphaned marine mammals. The Rescue Centre rescues stranded marine mammals and rehabilitates them for release back into their natural habitat. Donate to the Rescue Centre at www.vanaqua.org/donate.
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