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Turtle, Talk of the Town

New Yorker, Dec 30, 1985

A FRIEND who lives in Westchester writes:       One evening a couple of weeks ago, I got a call from my cousin-in-law Andy, who lives across the Sound from us, in Locust Valley. He had just been taking his new sea kayak out for a spin. Sea kayaking, he tells me, is big in places like Seattle, and it is starting to catch on in the East. Andy told me that he had got off work early that day (he’s a carpenter), thrown the kayak on the roof of his Peugeot, driven up to Bayville, and put in at the town beach, Stehli Beach. He was hoping to get in a three- or four-mile paddle before dark. But just as he was heading out he noticed something round bobbing in the surf-an animal of some kind, hanging limp. It looked dead. At first, he thought that it was a horseshoe crab, but as he drew near he saw that it was a turtle. “You know how it is when you see something you aren’t expecting at all,” he told me. “I kept trying to make it into a horseshoe crab, but it stayed a turtle.”

      Andy said he knew enough about turtles to tell that it wasn’t a snapper. “What would a snapping turtle be doing in salt water, anywayr” he asked himself. He lifted the turtle gently out of the water on his paddle. It felt like about five pounds–‘:pretty heavy, considering that its carapace, the upper half of its shell, was less than twelve inches in diameter. The carapace was coated with fuzzy green algae, which meant that the turtle had been immobile for some time. The shell and the head, tail, and flippered legs radiating from the shell were all pale greenish brown. The scutes, or plates, on the turtle’s skull were edged in white. Its blue-gray eyes, Andy said, “were just slightly open, and kind of sunken and cloudy.” The underpart of the shell, the plastron, was also somewhat sunken. “It seemed to be in starving condition,” he said. He concluded that it was a sea turtle, a juvenile that had come to a premature end in cold seas far from home. What in the world was it doing up here, he wondered.

      Thinking that the turtle was dead, Andy laid it on the sand and went off in his kayak for about twenty minutes, until it was too dark to see much beyond the bow. When he returned, he picked up the turtle to take another look at it. Suddenly, as he turned it over in his hands, one of its legs twitched. It was still alive! Andy wondered what to do. He couldn’t just leave the turtle there. Maybe something could be done for it. He decided to take it home and get in touch with the authorities, whoever they were. And, this way, Erika, his three-yearold daughter, would get to see it, he realized with pleasure as he drove home.

      When he got home, Andy put the turtle in a cardboard box, and while Erika studied it, wide-eyed, he called the New York Aquarium, in Brooklyn, but the Aquarium had closed for the day. Then he recalled that I used to go out with a girl who was deeply into sea turtles, and he called me. “Wow!” I said. “A sea turtle! I didn’t know they got up here. Hang on a sec.” I got down my copy of the “Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians” and looked up the green turtle, which was what this one sounded like. It said that Atlantic greens range in the ocean’s warm waters, “occasionally reaching New England.” “I’d say very occasionally,” I told Andy. “You’d better report this right away.”  I gave him the name of a local authority on turtles, and asked him to keep me posted. A bit later, Andy reported that he had called the turtle authority, who had told him that the turtle was in cold shock. Under no circumstances should -it be placed in warm water, because the sudden change of temperature could kill it. The best thing to do was to let it warm up naturally. There was no point in trying to feed it, because it wasn’t going to be interested in food for a while. And in the morning Andy should be sure to call the Aquarium. Marine turtles are protected, the authority explained, and if Andy didn’t turn it in he could be fined ten thousand dollars and sent to prison for a year.

      The next morning, Andy called the Aquarium and was put in touch with an outfit called the Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation, in Hampton Bays-the state representative of the Northeast Regional Stranding Network, which works to save marine mammals and sea turtles. Later in the morning, a man from Okeanos came to see the turtle, and took it off Andy’s hands.  After several hours, he learned from the research director of Okeanos, Samuel S. Sadove, that it wasn’t a green turtle, it was a Kemp’s ridley, and that four other Kemp’s ridleys had washed up along the North Shore that week.

      “A Kemp’s ridley!” I said when Andy called’to bring me up to date. “That’s even more amazing. The Kemp’s ridley is the rarest sea turtle in the world. I think there are,supposed to be onIy about a thousand breeding females left.” I had the number of Archie Carr, the grand old man of sea-turtle research, who lives in Micanopy, Florida; he had helped me with a book th~t I wrote about Florida in the early seventies. I called the number, and he answered. I asked if he had heard about the ridleys that had been turning up on ‘Long Island. Carr said I was about the tenth person to tell him the news. It was Carr, I now learned, who had given the ridley its name. “Ridley” was what local fishermen he questioned about sea turtles from Key West to New Orleans back in the thirties had said that this particular species was called. Carr had tried in vain to find out what the word “ridley” meant. It has since occurred to me that it might have something to do with the species’ irascible disposition, of CArr added, “Ridleys are mean-natured. When you get them in a boat, they glower, snap, thrash, and raise hell.” In the eighteen-seventies, Carr said, several specimens of the Atlantic species were sent to Harvard by a man from Key West named Richard M. Kemp. There is a related species, the olive ridley, in the Pacific. Both are highly endangered. The Kemp’s ridley is critically endangered. It’s down to about four hundred nesters per season.

      Carr went on to tell me that he had been equally unsuccessful in his attempts to find the ridley’s nesting beach, although he’d hunted for it for eighteen years, beginning in the late twenties. Finally, in 194 7, the beach was found. It was on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, below Brownsville, Texas, and ninety miles above Tampico, at a place called Rancho Nuevo. That year, a Mexican photographer filmed about forty thousand ridleys coming out to lay or waiting in the surf at Rancho Nuevo, and a man who saw the film notified Carr. But the days of such thrilling arribadas, as these events are called, were numbered. There was a clamorous demand for ridley eggs, because they were believed to have aphrodisiacal properties. In the years following the Second World War, the eggs were removed by the million, and one could find a bowl of them on almost any bar in Mexico. Eventually, after years of campaigning, Carr and others got the Mexican government to put a stop to the senseless egg trade. At very nearly the final hour, in the mid-sixties, the remaining ridleys were protected. Today, the beach at Rancho Nuevo is guarded during the nesting months by Mexican marines and young volunteers from this country. Each female ridley squats over a hole she has dug and drops about a hundred eggs into it. The eggs are unearthed and put in a hatchery to protect them from poachers. For the last eight years, there has been a project to establish a second nesting beach, on Padre Island, Texas, with eggs flown up from Rancho Nuevo. Nobody knows yet whether this is going to work-whether the hatchlings that leave Padre Island are going to return there. Nobody even knows when ridleys reach reproductive age. Green turtles do not reproduce until they are perhaps fifty. Carr said he wouldn’t be surprised if it took ridleys fifteen years to come back and nest.

      What happens between the time the silver-dollar-size hatchlings crawl down to the water and the time dinner-plate-size ridleys, like Andy’s turtle, start to show up on the Gulf Coast of Florida is also unknown. The little turtles are whisked away by the Gulf Stream. One turned up off the Azores early in this century; occasionally, yearlings are found along the Atlantic coast of Europe.

      I called Sadove to discuss the incident and find out how the turtle was doing. Sadove said there are a couple of possible explanations for the presence of the sea turtles-thirty-six ridleys, three loggerheads, and three Atlantic greens-that have been found in the Sound so far this fall. (1) What are called warm-core eddies branch off from the Gulf Stream and are precipitated into the shallow harbors of New England; as Carr once put it, “they bust off meanders and get slopped up on the continental shelf.” The turtles were perhaps trapped in one, and then, a couple of weeks ago-it’s been a long, mild fall-the water went cold. That would mean that the turtles were suddenly in desperate trouble, soon stopped feeding, and went into cold shock. (2) Some of the turtles were found near one of the North Shore’s power plants. Maybe a plume of warm water from it held the turtles there, and then they drifted into cold water.

      Andy’s turtle, Sadove went on, was the biggest of the lot. As soon as it came into Okeanos’s stranding center, it was put in a containment tub with seawater, and the water was slowly brought up to sixty-five degrees. Two days later, a man named Bob Schoelkopf picked up the ridley, along with two others, and drove them down to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, in Brigantine, New Jersey. There they were placed in a heated indoor pool, where they could swim around and get used to being out of cold shock. After three days, the turtles were force-fed squid and clams, and a few days later they were tagged and driven down to Atlantic City and put on a Sterling Charter Group flight to Fort Lauderdale. (The company generously provides a block of seats whenever sea turtles have to be reintroduced.) At Fort Lauderdale, a representative of the National Marine Fisheries Service met the turtles and drove them to the service’s Miami laboratory. Two days later, they w~re driven down to Key Largo and released into Florida Bay. Schoelkopf, who is the director of the Brigantine Stranding Center, believes in holding wild animals as short a time as possible. He said that Andy’s turtle “should be enjoying the sunshine by now.”  Sadove urges anybody who finds a Kemp’s ridley or any other sea turtle to call-collect-the hot line for strandings: 1-516728-8013.