Stranded sea turtles usually start appearing along the Northeast coast of the United States in late November, as the animals that did not make it south in time to avoid falling ocean temperatures become hypothermic and unable to swim or feed. But in the fall of 2015, said marine biologist Rob DiGiovanni, “turtles started to increase more in early December. Maybe because of the climate we had at the time” – it was the world’s warmest November and December on record – “we had animals come in alive on the 23rd of December, still able to be revived.”
As the executive director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, DiGiovanni runs the only organization in New York licensed to assess and pick up stranded seals, dolphins, and sea turtles – all protected species under federal law – from the state’s 2,625 miles of coastlines, beaches, bays, and estuaries.
Nursing marine animals back to health takes skill, dedication, and money. But the group’s challenge is to get the word out that Long Island’s beaches – despite being nestled in the nation’s most densely populated metropolitan area and best known as a summer party destination – are also habitat for wild animals that need special treatment when they show up onshore.
“Education and outreach are among the biggest things we can do to let people know they’re here, that they’re protected,” said DiGiovanni. “Maybe people are seeing animals but just assuming that they’re not there, so sightings go unreported.”
Walking along a Long Island beach in early February, DiGiovanni pointed to the “wrack line”: a jumbled band of seaweed, shells, and trash running parallel to the waterline, thrown dozens of feet inland by the high tide. This was where cold-stunned sea turtles typically turned up, he said, although it takes an attentive eye to spot a brown-green animal lying, probably motionless, in the brown-black tangles of sea kelp and driftwood.
“After high tide, walk the beach and look at the wrack line for something unusual,” said DiGiovanni. “If you find a turtle, don’t move it. Don’t touch it. Make sure it’s secure, and then find a stick to mark where the animal is” so that rescuers can find it – because each length of beach looks much like another. And always call in the sighting, DiGiovanni stressed, because hypothermic turtles may appear dead but may still be saved, while dead turtles can provide scientists and wildlife managers with valuable information.
We were not spotting any sea turtles on this day – it was late in the stranding season to find survivors, DiGiovanni said. But we were seeing plenty of litter. As we walked and talked, we steadily filled a kitchen can–size garbage sack with cigarette butts, plastic shopping bags, tangles of fishing line, and other plastic trash, along with beer and soda cans.
“This might not seem like it did a lot, but it made a difference,” said DiGiovanni as he tossed the bag into the backseat of his car. “If you weren’t writing this story, that’s one bag of garbage that would still be on this beach.”
Marine plastic trash has become so abundant and so widespread that scientists are calling it a global crisis for ocean life.
In 2002, Riverhead rescuers picked up a seal entangled in four pounds of plastic fishnet and line; a picture of the animal features prominently in the Riverhead Foundation’s educational exhibit at the Long Island Aquarium, where it is based.
“Marine debris is something we always see in our animals, and it’s not going away,” said biologist Samantha Rosen, the Riverhead Foundation’s education coordinator, who organizes several beach cleanings a month through the group’s new “Pick It Up” program.
Rosen, now in her mid-20s, first got interested in marine mammals when her mother brought her to a whale autopsy “with the people who are now my bosses,” she said. She went on to volunteer with the group, then interned while studying biology at a nearby college, and joined the staff about two and a half years ago.
“You’re excited that you get to work with these animals,” she said, “and nervous because you want to save them.”
The Riverhead Foundation gets an average of 200 hotline calls a year. In 2015 its rescue teams, which include staff and volunteers, responded to calls about 71 stranded seals and 24 cetaceans – dolphins, whales, and porpoises. Less than halfway into 2016, the group has rescued more than a dozen seals.
Of the 34 turtles Riverhead picked up during the 2015–16 stranding season, there are 11 survivors: 10 green sea turtles and one Kemp’s ridley, all endangered species. They swim in two sizable standing pools in the group’s animal care area, a warehouse-size expanse behind the aquarium’s exhibition space that also houses more than a dozen wood-walled enclosures for rescued seals, each with a small tank of circulating water. Plexiglas portholes allow staff to check on the patients without adding to the animals’ stress.
It’s an airy, clean, well-lit space with the no-frills atmosphere of any veterinary facility: a place optimized for tending injured and traumatized wild animals.
Off to one side, a small exam room fronted by two-way mirrors offers an education opportunity to aquarium visitors, who can observe unseen as animals rescued from the nearby beaches receive care.
Rehabilitating a rescued sea turtle or marine mammal doesn’t come quick or cheap. Seals usually need about two months to recover, at a cost of roughly $10,500 per animal in housing, medicine, and fish. Turtles stay in care for six to eight months, at a cost of about $15,000 per animal, because they cannot be released until summer. Nursing a dolphin back to health also takes months and costs up to $100,000.
The group relies primarily on public donations and grants to meet expenses, along with some funding that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides to its marine rescue network.
“When you look at a species like the Kemp’s ridley, which is so endangered, any animal you can save is important,” DiGiovanni said. “It’s what we do as a society, to care for animals. We don’t want to see them suffer, so if there are things we have introduced to the environment that cause them harm, having a program that can respond to those harms is needed.”
With a staff of 11 employees and two volunteer veterinarians, it’s a lot of ground to cover. But DiGiovanni suspects that many stranded animals are never spotted. “We cover the hot spots,” he said, but “until we can get better coverage of our beaches on Long Island, we’re not going to really know the magnitude of the problem.”
Mendy Garron, the stranding network coordinator for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Region, which stretches from Maine to Virginia, said the group accomplishes an impressive amount of work given its size. “Dead animal response, live animal response, and rehabilitation and release. Some organizations might do two of these,” she said, while Riverhead does all three and is also the region’s only marine mammal rescue organization authorized to rehabilitate stranded cetaceans, such as dolphins.
“They don’t just do the response and rehab but also are involved in aerial survey work for population studies,” she said. “They do a lot of tagging work and also have expertise in large whale necropsies – which we utilize both in and beyond the region. They’re not just serving New York but benefiting the national network as well.”
Riverhead’s territory includes New York City’s 520 miles of urban waterfront, where conditions pose sometimes-insurmountable challenges. In 2013, the group experienced a public backlash after opting not to rescue a common dolphin trapped in the Gowanus Canal, a muddy Brooklyn waterway better known as an industrial waste site than as a haven for marine life.
“Whenever we’re going to attempt a rescue, we look at the safety of the animals and the rescuers,” DiGiovanni said. “When we were talking with the police and fire departments, they said they would not be able to rescue us if something happened. It’s very difficult, but I think the people we had there made the calls that needed to be made.” The experience and its aftermath were traumatic for his team.
Garron said Riverhead made the right call, particularly as common dolphins that show up so far from their typical habitat far offshore are usually too sick or injured to recover. “Most of the outcomes for those situations are not good – the animal dies or has to be humanely euthanized,” she noted. “NOAA Fisheries has to do a better job of getting that message out to the public. There is so much involved in what Riverhead does that people don’t see and understand the whole picture.”
With 16 seals and 11 sea turtles under its care, Riverhead is looking forward to a spring and summer of returning animals to the wild. Seals can be freed year-round, and the group was to release two soon. The turtles will have to wait for the return of summer warmth.
Releases attract hundreds of residents, which helps spread the word about caring for New York’s marine life, DiGiovanni said. “We’ve focused on getting good at this work. Now we need to build the support system with the community.”
• Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.