A Kemp’s ridley sea turtle flapped its flippers up and down as Dr. Kathryn Tuxbury, a senior veterinarian at the New England Aquarium conducted a physical exam on Monday.

“So, I’m checking, palpating inside the body cavity, the coelomic cavity, checking for abnormally big kidneys, things like that,” Tuxbury said as she took a close look at the turtle in front of her.

This turtle recently washed up on a beach on the bay side of Cape Cod, stunned by the cold water temperatures. It’s become an annual event: as the turtles get stuck trying to migrate to warmer waters in the south, volunteers find the stunned turtles and bring them here, to the New England Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy.

“So, we're checking blood,” Tuxbury said as she continued her examination. “We can tell this guy's a little dehydrated. The eyes are sunken, but we're pretty active on the table, which is great.”

This is one of 59 turtles rehabbed here that were flown to Florida on Tuesday, where they will ultimately be released into warmer Atlantic waters.

Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest sea turtles in the world, and they’re critically endangered. On Monday, there were 144 sea turtles at the hospital, including green sea turtles and much larger loggerheads.

“In a perfect world, they would have gone south once that cold weather hits,” said Adam Kennedy, the hospital’s director. “But unfortunately, due to the shape of Massachusetts, when they head south, they run into the landmass.”

That landmass is the long, upward-curving arm of Cape Cod. It doesn’t occur to the turtles to swim north to get around the Cape so they just get stuck in the bay as the temperatures drop.

“And unfortunately, the water gets too cold for them,” Kennedy said. “They kind of shut down a little bit. They float to the top of the water and there they kind of wait for the weather to warm up.”

Dr. Kathryn Tuxbury, a senior veterinarian at the New England Aquarium conducts a physical exam on a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.
Craig LeMoult GBH News

But of course, the weather doesn't warm up until spring, and the wind ends up pushing the floating turtles onto the beach.

Kennedy says this didn’t used to happen nearly as often, but the climate is changing and raising the water temperatures around Cape Cod.

“Normally, those waters that would have been cold would have kept the majority of turtles out of Cape Cod Bay,” he said. “About 15 to 20 years ago, we would see 30 to 40 turtles per year. We're now, you know, on average, about 400 turtles coming in. And because now what's happening is the warm water is kind of keeping that cold water pushed north for a lot longer, allowing a lot more turtles to funnel into Cape Cod Bay than what they would have been able to years ago.”

The hospital is in a warehouse on the Quincy waterfront, with four huge tanks holding up to 15,000 gallons of water. On this day, there are fewer turtles than usual because recent winds haven’t been strong enough to push more of them onto the beach.

In addition to medical care, the turtles get a carefully prepared diet, like a feast of squid and herring prepared by intern Emily Davis.

A sea turtle swims in a tank at the New England Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy.
Craig LeMoult GBH News

“We'll cut it into filets because the turtles right now aren't eating any hard parts,” she said. “We cut into filets so they have nice boneless pieces.”

Some of the turtles that arrive here are in pretty rough shape, but Kennedy said the hospital is able to save up to 80% of those that make it here.

Biologist Alessia Brugnara examined another one of the Kemp’s ridley turtles and wanted to give it some antibiotic eye drops. But the turtle wouldn’t open its eyes.

“Honestly, if he doesn't open his eyes all the way, we'll just make sure to note it,” Brugnara said to a veterinarian assistant who was helping her. “Also, try to administer it because some could get between the eyelids. But this is actually how this turtle has been presenting. He probably has one of the worst eye situations.”

Brugnara said turtles that are stunned by the cold can injure their eyes when waves push them into rocks, or they can get frostbite on their eyelids.

She said the work is not easy, but the medical team working on this little turtle was hopeful about getting him back in the ocean someday.