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Stranding season has officially begun for cold-stunned sea turtles

Cold-stunned turtles in rehab tank. After recovery, they will be transported south for release.
VANESSA KAHN / New England Aquarium
Cold-stunned turtles in rehab tank. After recovery, they will be transported south for release.

UPDATE, Nov. 29: Since this story was reported, Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has rescued 165 cold-stunned sea turtles from Cape Cod beaches. The majority, found in Eastham and Wellfleet, are juvenile Kemp's ridleys. Two small loggerheads and nine green sea turtles were also rescued.

November 24 — More than 1000 sea turtles are expected to strand on Cape Cod beaches this winter, and it’s already shaping up to be “one of the oddest years ever.” 

According the experts with Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, the season has started slow: the first cold-stunned sea turtle was rescued just last week, about a month later than is typical.

“Just to put it into perspective, when we started doing this back in the mid 1980s, sea turtles were stranding around the 15th of October, and every year it's gotten a little bit later and a little bit later,” said Bob Prescott, sanctuary director emeritus at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. “But this year is ridiculously late.” 

In all, around 15 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles have been rescued heading into the Thanksgiving weekend. Many of the critically endangered animals were suffering from low internal temperatures but now appear to be in better shape.

The later start to the stranding season, Prescott said, is almost certainly a result of climate change. Warmer ocean temperatures can mean later and more compressed stranding seasons.

Now, Prescott said, he’s expecting the next five weeks to be extremely busy, with volunteers checking beaches from Dennis to Truro twice a day.

“We could be in for the most frantic five weeks that we've ever experienced, because last year it was about eight weeks to get 1,000 turtles. This year, it could be five weeks to get 1,000 turtles. So that is really going to test all of our systems and all of the staff and volunteers,” he said. 

More sea turtles will likely come in from Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and some of the embayments around Buzzards Bay, but those are less predictable.

“We do work closely with the Cape Cod National Seashore, and when the wind is out of the right direction, they will patrol Long Point, Woods End, and even down along Race Point because there will be turtles often coming in around there,” Prescott said. “But at this moment, because of that northwesterly wind, we're really focusing on the towns of Brewster, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet and the southern part of Truro.”

Sea turtles often are found cold stunned when water temperatures quickly drop and the animals become disoriented, unable to move, and at the mercy of the currents on the north side of Cape Cod. The “hook” of the outer Cape is particularly effective at trapping them inside the bay.

Then, when strong winds blow in from the north or west, ailing turtles can be pushed up onto the beach by the high tide and left behind as the water recedes during low tide.

“Because they've been cold for too long, their immune system is compromised, so that means pneumonia begins to develop and compromise their ability to breathe,” Prescott said. “At the same time, they're not just not able to move, they're not able to oxygenate properly, and then they wash up on the beach.” 

For those who come across stranded sea-turtles and are looking to help, Mass Audubon experts say the first thing to do is pick up that turtle by the sides of the shell — never by the head or flippers — and move it above the high tide line.

“Don't ever put a turtle back in the water because it's going to die,” Prescott said.

Then, cover it with seaweed so that it’s protected from the wind.

“The wind blowing over the shell will keep dropping the turtle’s temperature, and ultimately that could kill it,” he said. “But as soon as you put the seaweed or the thatch over the turtle that stops the decrease in temperature.” 

After that, call the turtle stranding hotline so that a volunteer can pick up the animal and bring it in for treatment. The hotline is 508-349-2615 x6104.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.