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Rescued sea turtles undergoing rehab at National Aquarium in Maryland

Sea turtles that suffered cold-stunning — becoming weak after prolonged exposure to low temperatures — are undergoing rehabilitation at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. (Theresa Keil/National Aquarium)
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More than two dozen sickened sea turtles are undergoing long-term rehabilitation at the National Aquarium in Baltimore after being rescued in the New England area.

Officials with the facility said the 30 sea turtles suffered from a condition called cold-stunning — becoming weak after being exposed for too long to cold temperatures. Sea turtles can’t regulate their body temperatures the way mammals can, and they get cold-stunned in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

When sea turtles are cold-stunned, they "become lethargic and are eventually unable to swim causing them to float to the surface,” NOAA said. Eventually, the wind and tides wash the cold-stunned sea turtles ashore; if they’re not rescued, they develop other more serious health conditions and can die.

The 30 sea turtles brought to Baltimore were rescued in November from Cape Cod, Mass. Officials said they were cared for at the New England Aquarium in Boston, then transferred to the aquarium in Baltimore for rehabilitation.

Kate Shaffer, rehabilitation manager at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, said sea turtles migrate up and down the Atlantic Coast. They go to Cape Cod for the summer, but when the temperature drops in the fall, it becomes hard for them to navigate “out of the cold waters,” she said. Because sea turtles are exothermic, they get their body temperatures from their surroundings, like air or water. “If they’re in water that’s too cold for too long, their bodies slow down,” Shaffer said.

“They stop eating, and they’re at the mercy of the tide,” she said. Every year, the Baltimore aquarium takes in about 30 sea turtles who are cold-stunned, she said.

The latest rescued sea turtles include 26 of a species called Kemp’s ridley, and four others are green sea turtles, aquarium officials said.

Both Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles are considered endangered species due to poaching and destruction of their habitat, experts said.

Experts at the Baltimore aquarium said the sea turtles had pneumonia, dehydration, emaciation and lesions on their skin, eyes and shells, along with blood infections — all common illnesses from being cold-stunned. They are getting care 24 hours a day from a team that hopes to return them to their natural habitat in about three to four months.

Officials at the aquarium said they have named some of the sea turtles after musical instruments, including Cornet, Tuba, Trombone, Trumpet, Kazoo and Viola.

Officials said that since 1991, the Baltimore facility has rehabilitated and released 270 endangered sea turtles.