Sea turtle rescuers brave Cape Cod storms to save endangered species

Rich Eldred

While most folks recuperated from Thanksgiving dinner, it was a wild weekend on the storm-churned seas of Cape Cod Bay. Those frigid waves tossed 35 sea turtles ashore between Thanksgiving and Sunday night, and 11 more have come in through Dec. 8.

Fortunately, the turtles aren’t alone on the sands. Nearly 40 volunteers, members of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary’s beach patrol, are out at every high tide through dark of night or pelting rains. So far, 34 live turtles have been picked up, out of 55 in all.

“Whenever the weather is as bad as it can be, you can be sure we’ll be out on the beach,” said Don Lewis, a longtime volunteer. “You’ve just got to be there when it comes in. Once it’s on the beach, the wind drains the heat out of its body. The key is to rescue them as soon as they come out of the water.”

Lewis now has a blog, wwwturtlejournal.com.

“Kemp’s ridleys are one of the most endangered sea turtles in the world,” he said. “When they’re two or three years old they’ve gotten through the normal hoops of survival; just one out of a thousand hatchlings survive. Their chance of survival is nearly 100 percent, then they’re trapped in Cape Cod Bay. So we can have a huge impact on their survival. During the last 20 years we’ve rescued more than a thousand from the breakers of the bay.”

He and his wife picked one up Saturday night, near Chapin Beach in Dennis.

“It was high tide, nine o’clock at night, floating in with the breakers from winds whistling 25 to 30 knots, flipped upside down,” Lewis said. “All you could see was the white bottom. It could’ve been mistaken for briny foam in the dark of night. It’s exactly like flotsam and jetsam.”

Michael Lach of Brewster and his young son, Skyler, were on their first patrol.

“It was thrilling,” Lach reported. “My son and I attended Audubon sea turtle class Saturday. We went up to the desk and asked to volunteer and went out at 8 a.m. and walked left at Linnell, walking into the wind. He spotted the first one and shouted, ‘Look, look, there’s a sea turtle.’ I almost fell over.”

They carried it above high tide, covered it with seaweed and called it in. Not long after that they found a second one near a seawall.

“They responded a little bit and lifted their heads,” Lach said. “We were lucky to have found live ones. To have Skyler find the rarest sea turtle alive right there on a Brewster beach was thrilling.”

Skyler was even interviewed by a writer for Smithsonian magazine who is doing a story on the phenomenon. The tropically inclined turtles, nearly all Kemp’s ridleys, get caught in the relatively warm water of Cape Cod Bay and if they don’t slip through the Cape Cod Canal or swim around Provincetown’s tip, the cold-blooded reptiles are cold-stunned and wash helplessly ashore.

“It was a pretty wild couple of days starting on the 25th,” noted Sanctuary director Bob Prescott. “It got busier and busier.”

Three turtles were found on Thanksgiving Day itself, then six the following day, and after the winds blew in Friday night, 13 turtles stranded Saturday with 13 more on Sunday.

“It was pretty steady, every time the wind picked up,” Prescott noted.

Four green turtles have washed up; the rest are Kemp’s ridleys that nest only on Padre Island in Texas and Rancho Neuvo in Mexico.

Prescott has been collecting stranded turtles for close to 30 years.

“Green turtles initially were about one a year; now we get about six,” Prescott said. “Ridleys averaged around 15 to 20, now they average 68. With both species, that’s a sign they are recovering. With ridleys, we know the population has increased dramatically. More turtles are nesting in Rancho Neuvo and there were 22 nests on the Texas coast.”

Not all turtles are rebounding.

“The number of loggerheads is going down,” said Lewis. “Loggerghead conservation is not doing well at all. A lot are caught as bycatch in coastal fisheries like shrimp and there is a lot of development where loggerhead nests are in the U.S.”

This year’s first stranding was Oct. 12, during a cold snap, but as the weather stayed warm, turtles were infrequent. Prescott said the season is about two weeks late, which worries him. Generally, the biggest turtles wash up last. It takes longer to cool their bigger body. So far, the turtles have all been relatively small. There could be a lot of larger turtles still out there.

Most of the turtles have been blown ashore between Dennis and Eastham but there were an inordinate number found on Sandy Neck in Barnstable.

“There are two live ones going to Boston at noon,” Prescott said. “We just keep them in a cool spot, weigh and measure them and get them stabilized. At the aquarium they take blood, do the electrolytes and heart monitoring. The first turtle had 12 to 14 beats per minute but last year, turtles were anywhere between five and one beat per minute.”

The Cape Codder

Stranded turtle hot line

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, 508-349-2615, ext. 104

Volunteers needed to spot stranded turtles or to transport weakened turtles to New England Aquarium in Boston.