Flood of cold-shocked turtles strand in UK

Juvenile loggerhead turtle found in Helston, Cornwall (Mike Pearson)
Juvenile loggerhead turtle found in Helston, Cornwall (Mike Pearson)

Turtle strandings are on the rise in the UK and Ireland this winter, with an unusual number of juveniles washing up on beaches because of stormy conditions, according to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).  

Anyone finding a turtle on a beach is asked not to return it to the sea because it will be in a condition of “cold shock”. They should however report it as soon as possible.

Thirteen hard-shelled turtle strandings have been reported to the MCS and the Marine Environmental Monitoring (MES), which maintains a turtle database, since November. Twelve of them were loggerheads and one a rare Kemp’s Ridley turtle, all relatively small with 20-50cm shells.

Most of the strandings have been in the south-west of England, with the furthest north in Anglesey in north Wales and one on Ireland’s west coast in County Mayo. 

“We were walking along Widemouth Bay, filling a bucket with sea plastic, fishing-nets and line and plastic bottle-lids when my husband saw a turtle on the high-tide line,” says Cat Frampton, who made her find in Bude, Cornwall. “It was still and looked lifeless and, not being up to speed on turtles, we assumed it was dead. I took some photos and we carried on with our walk. 

“Once we got home, I was curious about what a turtle could be doing in UK waters, so I looked up the MCS online. I found a ‘report a turtle sighting’ page on the website and, even though I got a few things wrong, like what species it was and that it was actually alive, my reporting, along with another person’s, meant the turtle was found and hopefully will live.” 

Juvenile loggerhead turtle found in Bude (Cat Frampton)
Juvenile loggerhead found in Bude (Cat Frampton)

“Although we see the most hardshell turtle strandings and sightings between December and February, this year we’ve had more than usual,” says Rod Penrose, who leads MES.

“They’re mostly juvenile or injured adults, so it’s thought that they struggled to fight the strong winds and currents of severe storms in their native waters of the USA and Caribbean, where they were carried offshore into the Atlantic Gyre before ending up in cold UK waters.” 

Rescued alive

Hard-shelled turtles go into coldwater shock in winter seas and are unable to survive for long. Four of the 13 stranded turtles were able to be rescued alive for rehabilitation at specialist facilities in the hope that they can eventually be released back into the wild. However, dead animals are also required for research into what befell them.

The MCS requests the reporting of turtles as part of its Wildlife Sightings programme. “It’s important that we gather data on turtle sightings and strandings, as well as other marine life such as jellyfish, to build a picture of our seas,” says MCS citizen-science programme developer Amy Pilsbury. 

“This vital information about our ocean’s inhabitants, and any changes in their frequency and whereabouts, contributes to scientific research that helps us to find solutions to protect our seas.” 

Anyone finding a stranded turtle should wrap it in a damp towel and set it on its belly somewhere safe and sheltered, raising its back end slightly to allow any water to drain from its lungs. More information is available in the downloadable Turtle Code, and turtle and jellyfish sightings can be reported to the MCS.

Also on Divernet: Turtle Navigation ‘Relatively Crude’, Life Looks Up For Endangered Turtles, The Turtle That Holds Up The World, How Fake Eggs Could Boost Turtle Survival



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