The frigid tale of Glockenspiel, the cold-stunned sea turtle rescued by the National Aquarium

Increasing waves of hypothermic sea turtles are alarming marine biologists

Published 3/18/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 3/23/2023 3:18 p.m. EDT

A kemp's ridley sea turtle undergoing rehabilitation at the National Aquarium.

To be a sea turtle is to brave the open sea. The promise of food often lures the animals to North Atlantic waters every summer before the autumn chill shoos them away back south.

But increasingly in recent years, some are getting cold-stunned around New England, a worrisome phenomenon that leaves them lingering in frigid waters and fighting for their lives.

Over 850 sea turtles were stranded in the Greater Atlantic region last fall — the third highest cold-stun season on record, according to the National Aquarium, where 26 have been taken in for rehabilitation this season. One died within a couple days of rescue, but 15 others have already recovered and been released back into the wild.

One of those still on the road to recovery is Glockenspiel, who was rescued from the Chesapeake Bay, not New England, making the sea turtle a local anomaly.

A kemp's ridley sea turtle undergoing rehabilitation at the National Aquarium.

When a turtle is cold, it cannot shiver. They are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, and succumb to the temperature of their environment. And when that temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the sea-roving reptiles are in trouble.

Lethargy sets in, and they float to the top of the water where waves often wash them inland. Slow to react, they struggle to avoid shell-cracking boat collisions or predators. As they float listlessly with hypothermia, exposure to the cold air can worsen their condition, leading to a host of secondary health issues: lungs flooded from pneumonia, skin lesions, dehydration or frostbite. In some cases, the immobile animals drown.

But when Eastern Shore residents found a cold-stunned loggerhead floating lethargically last summer near the mouth of the Choptank River, they called the National Aquarium’s hotline and the animal rescue team stepped in.

The team named the rescue Glockenspiel in keeping with the aquarium’s naming theme for their rescued turtles last year: musical instruments. They brought Glockenspiel to an Annapolis veterinary center for CT scans, and the animal was diagnosed with severe pneumonia and gastrointestinal infections.

The label on Glockenspiel's rehabilitation space.

Animal rescue experts said they are concerned by the worsening trend.

In New England, about four times more cold-stunned sea turtles were washing ashore in 2022 compared to 2012, according to one expert. And at one point in recent years, Texas saw over 8,000 cold-stunned sea turtles, which was the largest number on record in the nation.

“Climate change is drawing them farther and farther north, and then the geography of New England kind of traps them when they try to come back south,” said Jenn Dittmar, director of animal rescue for the National Aquarium.

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Glockenspiel loves to eat crabs and can digest the shells so they pass out completely soft, said Jenn Ditmar, director of the National Aquariums animal rescue team.

The National Aquarium houses a hidden turtle rehabilitation room, tucked behind the dolphin exhibit. It hosts a handful of sea turtles recovering from an array of health issues, but cold-stunning is the most common one.

The most commonly afflicted turtle species is also the smallest: Kemp’s ridleys. They usually spend their days loafing around Texas until the warm Gulf Stream sweeps them up north during spring (yes, like that scene in “Finding Nemo). They then attempt to return south before the autumn chill in the North Atlantic sets in.

The hidden turtle rehabilitation room at the National Aquarium.

Green sea turtles and loggerheads, however, nest all over the globe, which means scientists may never know where Glockenspiel came from. The only loggerhead in the room, Glockenspiel is several times bigger than a Kemp’s ridley, and kept in a separate enclosure.

The animal rescue team is trying to maintain the gentle creature’s natural instincts to ensure a safe release back into the wild. These days, that means keeping an eye on their natural foraging skills. “We never hand-feed him or her,” Dittmar said.

When I met Glockenspiel, the sea turtle was surrounded by the fragments of a recent lunch: clam shells. The loggerhead has an incredibly muscular head, allowing its beak to smash through shellfish and crustaceans. A juvenile, Glockenspiel’s sex will remain unknown until it reaches sexual maturity.

As turtle rescue season is tapering off, the rescue team is now gearing up for seal rescue season. They’re already rehabilitating an arctic harp seal that was rescued from Delaware a couple of weeks ago.

If you see a stranded sea turtle or marine mammal, you can call the National Aquarium’s 24/7 hotline at 410-576-3880.