LAWRENCE, Mass. — A year ago the New England Aquarium rescued Munchkin, a sea turtle stranded on Great Island, off Cape Cod. Staff nurtured the turtle at the aquarium’s Animal Care Center, restored her health and released her back into the ocean.
Munchkin was among hundreds of hypothermic sea turtles the aquarium has rescued and rehabilitated over the years — efforts that inspired master sculptor Don Chapelle’s latest work, a replica of Munchkin made from 40 blocks of ice.
His finished sea turtle sculpture was to be installed the day after Christmas in the New England Aquarium’s plaza on Boston Harbor, along with a coral reef and school of fish made of ice.
The immense, frozen art measures 7 feet high by 16 feet wide, and coincides with the city’s annual First Night celebration, a 45-year-old New Year’s Eve arts and cultural festival.
Over the years Chapelle has crafted countless ice works at his studio in this former mill city. Many have been for the aquarium on Boston Harbor.
With chisels, chain saws, torch, die cast router and other tools, Chapelle’s carved a lobster, sea lion pup, octopus and fur seal. Last year he sculpted a family of penguins.
Each of the works created at Chapelle’s Brilliant Ice Sculpture begins with machines that circulate water so that the ice blocks freeze from the bottom up, which is essential to the carving.
A finished block is trimmed to about 300 pounds, with a dimension of 40 by 20 by 10 inches. Each block has a temperature of 41 degrees below zero.
This isn’t work for people who cannot tolerate cold. Chapelle and his team — he employs another full-time sculptor and two part-timers — do much of their work in a freezer with a thermostat set to 20.
They wear thick overalls as they chip away at their work, which they deliver in pieces in two cargo vans. Munchkin, for example, consists of nine pieces — including head, flippers and shell.
A final sculpture’s longevity, like that of a certain famous fictional snowman, just depends upon the weather.
Chapelle has been crafting art from ice for a dozen years. He worked as a chef for many years before that.
This year, the aquarium’s Animal Care Center has been busy treating 195 turtles that rescued from Cape Cod beaches since early November. The turtles were warmed and medically treated. Many were flown to other sea turtle hospitals on the East Coast.
The turtles — which can grow to 7 feet and 1,500 pounds in maturity — are affected by changing ocean temperatures. As temperatures drop, smaller turtles struggle to survive.
“What happens is that sea turtles get stuck on Cape Cod when winter temperatures and winds move in, come November,” said Connie Merigo, the aquarium’s rescue department manager. “Our partners at the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary have volunteers who walk the beaches and rescue these cold-stunned turtles.
Paul Tennant writes for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Massachusetts.