A tropical sea turtle is recovering from cold shock after it was rescued from the waters of the Alberni Inlet on Vancouver Island.
Kraig Kimoto was nearing the end of his shift at the log sort at Franklin Forest Products on Sept. 30 when he spotted something near a tugboat off the edge of the wharf. It turned out to be an olive ridley sea turtle, a species of sea turtle more commonly found off the coast of Mexico and Central America. Kimoto, a scuba diver who has spent his winters in Hawaii and Mexico, immediately knew that the turtle was far from home.
“I thought, ‘You shouldn’t be here,’” Kimoto recalled.
Kimoto ran up the ramp to grab his phone so he could take a picture, but when he returned, he realized that the turtle had “barely moved.”
“It was not in that good of shape,” he said. “It was just kind of bumping against the wharf.”
The lethargic turtle had no reaction as Kimoto and his coworkers hauled it up out of the water and onto the dock. They immediately called conservation services. Another worker, Jim Weightman, looked after the turtle until officers could pick it up, keeping it in a covered aluminum boat to regulate its temperature.
Representatives from Fisheries and Oceans Canada transported the turtle to meet members of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre team. The adult male sea turtle—which weighed 26.9 kg—had a body temperature of only 11 degrees Celsius, compared to its ideal body temperature of more than 20 degrees Celsius. Staff members have nicknamed the turtle “Berni” after the community where he was stranded.
Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian for the Vancouver Aquarium, said that Berni appeared to be “cold-stunned.” Because sea turtles are cold-blooded, they depend entirely on their environment to control their body temperature. When that environment is too cold, sea turtles get hypothermic—also known as cold-stunning. Their hearts and respiration rates slow down, leaving them unable to swim or forage.
According to Marine Detective Jackie Hildering, a marine biologist and educator based out of Port McNeill, the olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is a species that cannot cope with the temperatures of northern waters and goes into cold shock—unlike the endangered leatherback sea turtle, which makes its home in B.C. waters.
Both Hildering and Haulena have suggested that Berni’s appearance in the Alberni Inlet could be related to a marine heat wave off B.C.’s coast, similar to “The Blob” of 2014 to 2016. This warmer-than-usual area of water is located in the Pacific Ocean, just off the west coast of North America.
Another possible reason for his appearance, said Haulena, is above-average sea temperatures, which often prompt unusual migrations.
Berni is only the fourth turtle of his species ever known to be found off the coast of B.C.
The first known sighting of the olive ridley sea turtle in B.C. waters was in 2011. The turtle was discovered at Wickaninnish Beach in the Pacific Rim National Park reserve. The turtle was “badly injured” after suffering blunt force trauma and died in the care of the Vancouver Aquarium.
Berni, however, is reportedly responding well to treatment at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. Staff have been monitoring him closely and administering fluids to treat dehydration. Additional diagnostic testing will continue over the coming days. The plan is to gradually raise his temperature by slowly increasing the ambient temperature of the hospital.
“Berni has a long road to recovery, but he is responding to treatment,” said Lindsaye Akhurst, manager of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. “Once he’s stabilized, we will work closely with Canadian and U.S. authorities to get the permits that allow him to be released in warmer waters.”
Updates on Berni can be found at mmrpatients.org.