Rescuing Sea Turtles with Wonders of Wildlife

Not all heroes wear capes. The heroes at The Johnny Morris Sea Turtle Center answer the call to rescue stranded sea turtles and nurse them back to health.

By Kali Salazar

May 2024

sea turtles
Photo courtesy Wonders of WildlifeThe Johnny Morris Sea Turtle Center helps save stranded sea turtles.

Greeted with salty air and a warm breeze, it feels as if you’ve stepped right onto the beach when entering the Johnny Morris Sea Turtle Center at Wonders of Wildlife. The mission of this center is to help stranded sea turtles ride the waves to healing through rescue, rehabilitation and finally, release. The rescue center began operating in 2020 after being contacted by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which acts as the coordinating body for connecting sea turtles stranded on the east coast to rehabilitation facilities around the country. Due to a record-breaking stranding event that year on the east coast, the New England Aquarium didn’t have enough room or resources to house and care for all the sea turtles that needed to be nurtured back to health. The team at Wonders of Wildlife wanted to help, so they jumped in and agreed to accept the turtles. The turtles were then flown to Springfield by Turtles Fly Too, a nonprofit network of pilots who donate their time and resources to move turtles to rehabilitation facilities, and the program officially began helping stranded sea turtles.

According to Mike Daniel, Director of Animal Care at Wonders of Wildlife, a sea turtle can become stranded due to cold weather changes that affect the temperature of the ocean. “When the temperature drops below the 50s, their bodies will literally slow down and they have problems swimming,” says Daniel. “They will float and are more likely to be hit by a boat, lose their ability to navigate and swim and wash up on the beach.” These turtles are also more susceptible to certain diseases, specifically pneumonia.

When the turtles first arrive in aquatic holding at Wonders of Wildlife, they are quarantined to ensure that no parasites or diseases spread to other turtles in the facility. After that, Daniel explains that the turtles are put into divided tanks based on their species. The three species of sea turtles brought to the facility consist of loggerheads, greens and Kemp's ridleys. After this placement, the rehabilitation journey begins. One part of this process involves giving each turtle a subdermal microchip or a “pit tag” so they can be monitored after release to prevent future stranding. In addition to the microchips, the turtles are given high quality food to help them regain their strength. Once a turtle begins eating aggressively and can successfully capture and eat live prey put into the tank, the veterinarians assess if they are ready for release.

The amount of time a turtle is in the rescue center can vary, but most are ready for release between three and four months in Daniel’s experience. NOAA facilitates where the turtles will be released after rehabilitation based on the turtle’s size, age and species. They also consider environmental factors such as the condition of the beach, water temperature and weather. In the last four years of operation, the Johnny Morris Sea Turtle Center has rescued, rehabilitated and released 46 sea turtles back into the wild and currently has 16 turtles in their care.

While the turtles cannot be viewed by the public due to their critical condition, Daniel says that they can “become ambassadors for their species” by helping to raise awareness about the importance of protecting sea turtles and their environments in any way we can. Looking ahead, Emily Little, Marketing Communications Coordinator for Conservation Attractions, says Wonders of Wildlife is excited for the opportunity to continue to help sea turtles and other endangered species so that future generations can enjoy these amazing animals.