Sunbathers at Sea Bright, NJ, a small seaside community located near the entrance to New York Harbor, got a sad surprise last Sunday morning as they looked out to the Atlantic Ocean. A dead sea turtle was floating in the water.
People started to realize something was weird when several rescue boats were spotted around 9:30 a.m. from the Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office. They were all converging in the same area out in the ocean. It’s unusual to see so many rescue boats in the same location when there isn’t someone to rescue.
To add even more intrigue and excitement, at approximately 11 a.m. lifeguard staff from Sea Bright beach went out with a jet ski and a surfboard to locate and tow the poor creature farther out to sea. This activity caused a stir among beachgoers and made for an interesting late summer show.
All this action made me wonder though if any local wildlife organizations had been notified, including the Marine Mammal Stranding Center of NJ or Sea Turtle Recovery. Both non-profit organizations are trained and authorized by the federal government to deal with sea turtle strandings and are dedicated to educating the public on the important ecological role of sea turtles and ways to protect their future.
I doubt Sea Bright lifeguard staff are trained to deal with wildlife problems, especially with dead sea turtles. Towing a wild animal farther out into the ocean didn’t seem sensible, because the poor sea creature will eventually float or drift to another nearby beach following the longshore current. In my opinion the turtle should have been picked up and taken for a necropsy to help indicate what caused the animal’s death. Now the exact cause of its injuries are lost to time and tides.
Viewing the turtle from the beach, though, it seemed pretty evident the turtle got badly banged up either when it was alive or dead. There was an extensive cut in its carapace (shell) near the head and the turtle was not moving at all. The head was always sunk below the water. The poor animal was dead and starting to rot. Most likely gases were accumulating inside the body to make the turtle float.
The sea turtle was the latest victim of a boat collision around New York Harbor. Woefully boat strikes are a significant threat to sea turtles around New York Harbor. Several wash up dead every year, especially during the summer when boat activity is at its peak.
Sea turtles can be injured or killed by blunt-force trauma from boat impact or by propellers. The animals can be hit when a sea turtle comes to the surface to breathe or when feeding. Sea turtles often move slowly, and have poor hearing and vision when out of the water, and many times will not notice an approaching speeding boat in time to move away. Direct contact with a boat or its propellers may sever tissue or vital organs causing immediate death, debilitating the animal, or transmitting infection leading to a slower, more difficult death.
With increasing numbers of high-speed, high-powered boats in the water every summer, sea turtles have a much more difficult time trying to avoid these vessels. A number of sea turtles are killed in collisions with boats and many more are injured or maimed for life.
Not everyone realizes that sea turtles are frequent visitors to New York Harbor, including the Jersey Shore. Sea turtles are generally solitary creatures that remain submerged for much of the time they are in the water, which makes them extremely difficult to see or study.
There are primarily four common species: loggerheads, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback, and green sea turtles. Sea turtles usually start appearing in June, when waters warm, and start migrating south in October. Local waters are primarily used as a "nursery" for young sea turtles to feed and mature before migrating south to warmer waters in search of food following the Gulf Stream.
It was hard to say for sure what type of sea turtle was floating dead near the Sea Bright beach, but my best guess was a juvenile loggerhead. The dead turtle had a conspicuously large, block-like head, and was about three feet long, both common characteristics of a loggerhead. While no one knows for sure how long a loggerhead sea turtle may live, it reaches sexual maturity at around 35 years old.
For many people living around New York Harbor, visiting the Jersey Shore is a popular summer tradition. But for sea turtles swimming through the water, the Jersey Shore can be a death trap. When boating, please be on the lookout for turtles and slow down!
If you see a sea turtle that appears injured, entangled, sick, or being harassed by a person, in New Jersey call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center at 609-266-0538. In New York, call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at 631-369-9829. These two organizations have the authority to help stranded or sick marine mammals and sea turtles. Wildlife experts with the help of trained volunteers will determine if an animal is in need of medical attention, needs to be moved from a populated area, or just needs time to rest.
To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at http://www.nyharbornature.com