Finding the Keys to Safe Transport of Debilitated Turtles

By ROGER D. PSZONOWSKY, NIKIA RICE, and DAVID G. CHENEY JR.

Dead, dying, and debilitated sea turtles wash ashore along the 300 miles of ocean and lagoon shoreline of Brevard County, Florida, U.S.A., about 160 times a year, with 47 percent of the affected animals requiring transport to a rescue or rehabilitation facility that may be hours away. Such journeys are logistically complex and carry a number of risks for both the turtles and their rescuers. Founded in 1984, the Sea Turtle Preservation Society (STPS) has 25 permitted volunteers who regularly transport stranded turtles in Brevard County. Drawing on the experiences of this team and on advice from Drs. Craig Pelton and Charles Manire, who are qualified sea turtle veterinarians, STPS developed a set of best practices for transporting disabled turtles while mitigating some of the risks.

The effort began by meeting with veterinarians and rehabilitation staff members at a number of facilities and by interviewing experts at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to gather background information about the most important equipment, tools, and techniques to use for safe transportation of injured turtles. Because most of STPS’s first responders are local volunteers who may see only a few strandings per year and for whom specialized equipment is unaffordable or impractical, STPS’s best practices guidelines focus on the use of cost-effective tools that are readily available to the public.

BEST PRACTICES FOR SAFE TURTLE TRANSPORT

Rehabilitation facilities have professional medical staff members and specialized equipment to care for turtles once they are on site. Thus, the greatest challenge is often ensuring that the turtles get from the stranding site to the facilities without creating more problems. Transporting the turtles can mean confronting a gauntlet of back- breaking lifting, loading, and long drives over difficult terrain in open air or hot vehicles—all factors that can stress and cause internal injuries to a turtle if not performed properly.

Moving a weak or injured turtle weighing as much as 200 pounds from the ocean or shore and into a vehicle can harm both the turtle and the person trying to help; if done incorrectly, simply lifting the animal can result in distress and potentially serious injuries. In some cases, veterinarians have noted that injuries to turtles that occurred during rescue and that transport may have contributed to the animal’s death.

One of the keys to safely transporting a sea turtle is to lift the turtle on a flat surface rather than by the carapace alone, which can lead to injury. © CARLA MROZ

One of the keys to safely transporting a sea turtle is to lift the turtle on a flat surface rather than by the carapace alone, which can lead to injury. © CARLA MROZ

STPS created a visual aid program to educate volunteers about the most common situations that one may encounter. In the video, a trainer explains the best techniques for moving turtles, for making them comfortable, and for securing them during transport. Emphasis is placed on the importance of proper lifting, the use of appropriate containers and padding, and the monitoring of the animal’s core temperature during transport.

First, it is best to avoid lifting turtles. Instead, one should find a means to float the turtle or to gently slide it onto a board for support. This method is particularly important with emaciated turtles, which make up about 20–25 percent of the animals that end up in rehabilitation centers. Marginal support, such as that provided by a flat surface beneath the animal, is very important. One should always avoid lifting a turtle by the carapace alone because the plastron bones (the hyoplastron or xiphiplastron) can actually puncture the heart and other organs if improper pressures are applied. It is further recommended to keep the animal flat and to prevent the turtle from moving during transport.

Second, maintaining the core body temperature of a rescued turtle is important. Medical staff members prefer that temperature remain relatively constant. If the turtle has been in the sun for an extended time, cooling it slowly may be required during transport. Similarly, if the animal is cold, warming it must be extremely gradual to avoid shock. Transporters are trained in the proper techniques for maintaining core temperatures by using towels and water. When questions or problems arise, the transporters know how to contact FWC, and they remain in contact with the designated treatment facility during transport to give the facility reliable estimated times of arrival and updates on the turtle’s condition.

STPS TURTLE TRANSPORT TEAM

Not unlike an ambulance crew that deals with human patients, STPS built a special transport team from among its nearly 300 members who actively participate in rescue, education, and data collection. Those team members possess the permits required to ensure compliance with federal and state laws related to the handling and transport of protected species under the U.S. Federal Endangered Species Act and Florida’s Marine Turtle Protection Act.

When a live turtle is reported on the STPS hotline, a text message goes out to the transport team with information, including location, size, injuries, and contact information about the turtle, as well as the specific treatment facility that will take the turtle. The transporter will assist the stranding team in moving the turtle off the beach; loading it into a secure container with padding; and using wet or dry towels to help cool, warm, or maintain the turtle’s core body temperature. The transporter will also maintain contact with the hotline and treatment facility during transport.

When a call comes to save a turtle, volunteers’ adrenaline starts pumping. They must rush to the scene, assess the situation, inform FWC, and often enlist the support of willing bystanders because moving a large turtle off the beach and out of the hot sun often requires the assistance of nearby people who must be educated on the spot about proper handling techniques.

Members of the STPS transport team must meet the following criteria:

• Be licensed and capable of driving an STPS van and truck, or have a personal vehicle with a covered cargo area.

• Have access to a climate-controlled area.

• Have a hands-free mobile phone.

• Have several sizes of containers with padding available.

• Have a supply of clean towels and gloves for handling turtles.

• Have a water container for keeping animals damp and cool.

• Have a digital thermometer.

• Be able to monitor a turtle’s vital signs during transport.

• Have knowledge of rehabilitation facility locations and contacts.

• Have copies of all required permits.

A POWERFUL AMPLIFIER FOR CONSERVATION

Following those simple guidelines has improved the success of STPS’s sea turtle rescue program with little additional cost. Although most concerns in the sea turtle conservation community revolve around addressing population and species-level threats, it is also important to help the individual victims of ingested plastic, climate change–induced cold snaps, and other threats that injure or kill turtles on our shores every year. When local residents and tourists know that a dedicated team of trained and committed turtle rescue professionals is just a phone call away, such knowledge can act as a powerful amplifier for the success of sea turtle conservation on all levels.