Just Breath! A Turtle Emergency Response Volunteer Story

Story written by Rob Cuddi, Turtle Emergency Response Volunteer

The Rav-4 was frigid as I nosed out of a tangle of blankets.  It was pre-dawn and still quite dark outside when one of the seasonal biologists tapped at my windshield. Heater on, steaming tea poured from my thermos, as Eran settled into the passenger seat. Several of us Volunteers and Interns coming from a long distance had the same idea, camping out in the parking lot early, listening to music, sleeping, or just catching up on stories until the start of our shifts at the Aquarium’s Rescue & Rehab Center.

By 8am, we had crammed into the locker area, peeling off our layers, eager to check in on the turtles. My morning started by greeting the new arrivals. “You guys are in good hands now,” I thought. Their transport south to warmer waters was only a few months away, but first we needed to slowly warm them up, and get them strong and healthy. “Just breathe and heal; the staff and volunteers are all rooting for you.”

One little guy, whom I later called 007, was truly in tough shape. He was very lethargic, his shell damaged, and his heartbeat barely detectable. He was to be left in a crate to warm up in a temperature controlled room, snuggled in a cozy towel. I assisted Eran in lubricating 007’s shell and making him comfortable for the day. The little sea turtle lifted his head slightly as if he could hear me encouraging him. Part of me wanted to camp out next to 007, as if my presence would give him some extra hope of survival, but alas there was little I could really do; it was out of our hands at this point. It all depended on just how sick 007 was and how much fight this little guy had left in him….. Just breathe!

banana box
Banana boxes are the perfect size for carrying stranded Kemps Ridley Turtles

Our days are long and busy, especially as the season progresses and more cold stunned-turtles arrive from the Massachusetts Audubon Wildlife Center in Wellfleet. On each of my volunteer days, right after check in, I would find 007 and whisper, “Just breathe,” and do a happy dance at his progress. He was a fighter for sure, a true credit to Bond. I felt 007 was a more apt number for him than the identification number painted on his shell.  (Those numbers are a simple way of keeping track of their records and distinguishing them from other turtles.)

Days aren’t always filled with turtle observation. There is always laundry to do, MOUNTAINS of soiled towels from the crates or exam tables. Wash, dry, fold, wash, dry fold…..it never stops. Water temperatures also needed to be taken and posted each morning and afternoon, tanks needed to be wiped-down, crates setup, water samples collected and sent to the lab…never a dull moment once you step in the door. Our assignments would change day to day depending on what the turtles and the staff needed. Some of us worked with a biologist holding turtles during exams, some were assigned to food prep, some were on transport, bringing turtles to and from the tanks to the clinic for exams and or treatments, some were running blood samples to the lab. After our morning jobs were completed most of us joined the feeding team, which could be a joy and a challenge both. Some turtles were eager to eat but others were just too sick to be interested in food.

Turtles in pool
Some of the Kemp’s Ridley Turtles rescued in Fall 2016

We are to record the results of our feeding efforts and leave it to staff to decide on the next step. At first 007 was one of the turtles ignoring any food offerings. He was often focused on gulping air and attempting to hide at the bottom of the tank. He wasn’t able to stay down long, however, due to a buoyancy condition that sometimes afflicts the new arrivals. This buoyancy condition is caused by trapped intracoelmic gas. Understandably, he was more desperate for air than the food, but the day would come when he started to show interest in those morsels of squid. Once he took that first bite and swallowed, several of us cheered and did our happy dance. He was still not out of the woods, anything could happen, but with the pneumonia improving and his appetite surfacing, there was hope to cling to for this little guy.

As we are trained in higher-level tasking, we eventually get to help with check-ups. Gosh, the first time I held a cold-stunned sea turtle it was almost hard to focus, so difficult to keep the emotions at bay! My hands felt as cold as the turtle I was holding; the poor little one was so lethargic, flippers and head displaying little movement and lots of reddish frost- bite signs in the flesh. Elizabeth, a Seasonal Biologist, was trying to find a heartbeat, while I held my breath to intensify the quiet in the exam area.

turtle towel
Medical exam table, ready to receive a turtle

There was action all around us from volunteers feeding or transporting turtles to and from exam areas. Elizabeth asked for quiet, and was able to finally get a faint, slow beat, bringing smiles from the volunteers and an exhalation of breath from me! Holding a healthy sea turtle was a much more challenging experience. Their flippers would flap and rip at our gloves, while their wide open mouths hissed, as if to yell “leave me alone.” I kept waiting for the day when 007 would act like a healthy, ready-to-transport Kemps Ridley sea turtle! I placed his name and photo on my prayer list and included him in my morning meditations. As a Buddhist, I believe in the right to life for all inhabitants of the universe, sea turtles especially included at this time of year!

007 was one of the fortunate ones. After months of recovery, throngs of cheering supporters watched his return to the sea on a warm summer day on Cape Cod. I spend a great amount of down-time at the shoreline, often in meditation. 007 often creeps into my thoughts. I can’t help but send him encouraging prayers for a safe journey south as temperatures decline each year. This year’s stranding season is in full-swing, but no matter what type of a hand Mother Nature deals us, our staff and volunteers are geared up and ready.

 

Volunteers and interns are an important part of this story. From transporting turtles from Wellfleet, to assisting in medical procedures, to washing towels and prepping food, we couldn’t complete this vital conservation mission without their help! There are many ways to get involved:

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