NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The Audubon Nature Institute created quite a splash last week when it released 21 sea turtles into the Gulf of Mexico, the happy ending to a near-death experience for the turtles.
However, turtle triage is nothing new for staffers at the Audubon Aquatic Center in Lower Coast Algiers. For example, Audubon was virtually an emergency room for such victims of the Gulf oil spill in 2010, nursing back to health dozens of Kemp's ridley sea turtles.
The center was one of several marine facilities to offer care for turtles that stranded themselves on New England beaches last November in sudden and extreme cold.
"Had there not been volunteers to retrieve the animals and give them some warmth and recovery, it would've been disastrous," Senior Vice President and Director of Husbandry for Audubon Aquarium John Hewitt said.
Each year, sea turtles migrate hundreds of miles down the Atlantic Seaboard, and in many cases, into the Gulf of Mexico. However, they have a little problem with the geography of New England, specifically the odd hook that shapes Cape Cod Bay. Instinct tells the turtles to swim south, even though they need to head north first to exit the bay and make their way to safety.
"When winter came in, it came in with a vengeance," Hewitt said. "There were no minor cold fronts. It swooped down with an arctic event that caught all the turtles on the East Coast in shore."
About 27 turtles wound up at Audubon, including one green sea turtle and 26 of the highly-endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles. Only one of the stranded turtles brought to New Orleans died.
"When they come in, they're just kind of big logs," said Dr. Tres Clarke, veterinarian at the Audubon Aquatic Center. "They're not eating. They don't want to do anything."
While the turtles suffered severe hypothermia and even frostbite, staffers said dealing with pneumonia posed the biggest challenge.
"Pneumonia can be pretty tricky in animals," said Suzanne Smith, the Audubon Nature Institute stranding and rescue coordinator.
Audubon treated the turtles with two different types of antibiotics and slowly warmed the turtles. Smith points to one turtle, with number 680 painted on its shell, swimming in a small container inside a larger tank.
"We weren't sure he was going to make it."
Today, 680 is active and hungry, but is still one of five turtles staffers decided to keep a few more weeks to ensure full recovery.
During the Gulf spill, Audubon successfully treated 193 Kemp's ridley sea turtles, a 100 percent success rate.
In one sense, the New England stranding simply represented nature at work. However, Kemp's ridley sea turtles have enough problems without a mass stranding decimating their numbers. The most endangered of all sea turtles, marine experts say the Kemp's ridley suffers from loss of habit as beach front property has been claimed over the years. Turtles can be snagged in commercial fishing nets and often mistake plastics tossed into the ocean for food.
"There are a lot of things that we are doing to their environment." Smith said. "With low numbers of the Kemp's ridley, we need to do our part to make sure they're around."
Last week, 21 more turtles tasted freedom again in comfy, warmer waters off Grand Isle, La. Audubon found a man-made habitat for the re-introduction - oil platforms that provide the turtles shelter from predators and a rich food source.
Five years ago, scientists saw hope that the turtles were on the rebound. However, Hewitt said in the last couple of years, the number of turtles returning to nest on beaches suddenly dropped.
"We're hoping that it's not something related to the BP incident," said Hewitt, who added that no one can be certain of the cause.
That makes this happy ending even sweeter for Aquatic Center staff members who nursed the turtles back to health.
"There's no greater reward," Smith said.