Growing Long Island Sea Turtle Rescue answers call for help

The first annual brewery “Turtle Crawl” will take place this Saturday to benefit the New York Marine Rescue Program

By Amy Nicole Tangel

During the summer season, Long Island’s Atlantic coast is filled with a variety of sea turtle species who make it their home to enjoy warm waters and plentiful food until the fall comes when make their migration south.

While the turtles love LI’s warm waters, New York Marine Rescue Center (NYMRC) Rescue Program Director and New York State (NYS) Sea Turtle Co-Coordinator Maxine Montello, M. SC., said over recent years the ecosystem is losing the gradual transition of seasons.  As a result, more turtles than ever are becoming effected by a “cold stunned” condition, which many cold-blooded turtles face if they don’t leave before temperatures drop.

“Cold-stunned, I would say is our biggest stranding cause for the large amounts of animals at the same amount of time,” she said making it a point NYMRC faces a full and true season in life-or-death rescue beginning in November extending to as far as January.

The term “cold stunned” equivalates to hypothermia, and with most sea turtles in the North Atlantic being cold-blooded animals they don’t have the ability to regulate their internal temperatures.  While they love LI’s warm waters, living here all summer, Maxine said they are noticing the turtles are losing their ability to gradually transition from fall to summer to winter with no cue to decrease.

“Leaving them exposed to quick cold snaps that debilitate and essentially paralyze them,” she explained.

Although the number of turtles per year rescued has increased, so has their survival rate.  Maxine credits this to the organization’s implementation of a cold-stunned patrol team NYMRC calls their “Citizen Scientists.”

“Citizen Scientists” are trained to walk the beach specifically to look for turtles and signs of distress or injury resulting in the rescue center getting their turtles in their care faster than ever before. Before the patrol team, Maxine said the numbers used to be 40 percent survival to 60 percent death rate, but now with a growing volunteer team of approximately 300 patrollers the tables have flipped to approximately a yearly rate of 70 percent survival to 30 percent death.

Volunteers “Citizen Scientists” such as Steve Abbondondelo, a 72-year-old volunteer from Hicksville who has been with the rescue since 2005, said even though Long Island is surrounded by water many of its residents are not aware of the presence, or the dangers and challenges sea turtles face in our local waters.

“Through education we can provide the knowledge and tools needed for the public to respond and recover animals who without our help will not survive. In doing so, we are playing a role in the survival of these endangered animals,” he said.

Although the rescue has many volunteers like Steve dedicated to walking north-facing-beaches where the turtles float in, they have a continued call for help for more people to come on board to continue to keep-up with the increase in rescues and the rapid response time resulting in the growing survival rate.

“These animals are surviving because of the public awareness and these people that are willing to help them,” said Maxine.

Unlike aquariums or zoos Maxine said the emotional challenge for NYMRC and what sets their staff apart from others is having to keep their distance as humanly possible, because these animals need to remain wild.  However, the organization has found meaningful ways to give love from a far through practices such as choosing a yearly theme to name their turtles and seals. 

The current rescue season coming to end was botanical theme of names such as Petunia, Maple, Birch, and Agave.  They will be voting on a new theme next month and Maxine said the front-runners so far for this year is cheeses, fruits and vegetables followed by LI landmarks.

For Maxine, she said for herself and her team getting to send them home and have a second chance makes the long nights, the stress, and emotional roller coaster they feel all worth it.

“We have to keep them wild; that’s our goal here, and because of that we still get attached but from afar,” she said.

NYMRC is a non-profit organization that completely depends on support from every angle with funding at the Federal and State government level to the seemingly most impactful support within the local communities. Not only does NYMRC rescue for NY waters they also work with New England Aquarium in Boston and in peak season take the overflow of their turtle rescues when they are called upon.

NYMRC works with a group through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called “Turtles Fly Too,” where private pilots donate their planes and time to fly turtles from New England directly to them at Francis S. Gabreski Airport I Westhampton.

“Sharing our space is something we really promote here,” she said.

On average the cost to care for one sea turtle is approximately $10,000 with a rehabilitation process that lasts about 7 to 9 months.  Maxine, who has been NYMRS since 2017, said one of the challenges of rehabilitating cold-stunned turtles is most of the time the waters here on Long Island are still too cold for them to be released once they are healed, adding to the hefty cost for care. 

While NYMRC does work with NOAA to sometimes fly the sea turtles down south to be released, Maxine said most of the time they are released back on LI shores.  On average, the NYMRC is now rescuing approximately 50 turtles per year, an increase Maxine said which has led the organization to be diligent in coming up with new ways to raise funds and support through their local community to be able maintain the high cost for care.

The most prominent turtle species known for gracing Long Island’s coasts are the Kemp’s Ridley; the most critically endangered of the species, the leatherback, loggerhead and green sea turtles.

“Their survival depends upon how quickly we get them from the time they hit the beach to the time they get back here,” Maxine said. “Our little organization is just a small footprint in the bigger conservation for these species.”

This Saturday in Riverhead, where the rescue calls home within Long Island’s Aquarium they will be hosting their first annual “Turtle Crawl” thanks to the generous support from five local breweries. Participants can crawl, walk or run every hour from brewery to brewery. For $40 they will receive a t-shirt, a bracelet for drink discounts and towards the end of the crawl additional discounts for food. One hundred percent of money raised from the day’s fundraiser will be going directly to support the sea turtle program and cold-stunned turtles to help the rescue season right around the corner.

“We’re really trying to make it a fun day for twenty-one plus,” she said.

The “Turtle Crawl,” a title Maxine said just naturally lent itself as it is a term for turtles as they leave tracks or “crawls” on the beach with their front flippers, is one of many events throughout the year.

Limited tickets are still available for Saturday’s “Turtle Crawl” and can be purchased through NYMRC’s website,  For more information on becoming a volunteer, how you can donate or to learn more about all the marine life they rescue please visit their website or call 631-369-9840.


What to do if you find a distressed turtle:

If you come upon a turtle during the fall cold-stunned season months, please call their stranding hotline at 631-369-9829 and provide as many details as possible. Turtles will usually be found on north-facing beaches after a high tide within the “rack line,” which is the highest tide mark on beach where the seaweed is, said Maxine. 

Another important step the public can take if they come across a turtle upside down seen floating in or on the beach is to carefully flip them over, move them above the rack line so they don’t become swept back out and if possible, Maxine said to dig a small hole in the sand and gently cover them to keep the turtle warm and protected from predators until the rescue team arrives.

A portion of photos courtesy NYMRC

Video: Amy Nicole Tangel

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