Skip Navigation

Species Search:

Nature Watch: Everything from Armadillos to Zebra Butterflies

Stranded Sea Turtles

Naturalists are running a frantic race against time, trying to save the lives of sea turtles stranding themselves on beaches in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Bob Prescott, Director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, has never seen anything like it. Prescott has been saving stranded marine mammals and sea turtles for years, but this fall and early winter have tested his energy and resources to the limit.

There are seven species of sea turtles in the world. Five of them live in American and Canadian waters and have been found on Cape Cod at sometime: the Leatherback, Green Turtle, Atlantic Ridley (also called Kemp's Ridley), Loggerhead, and Hawksbill. The soft-shelled Leatherback can grow to enormous size and is essentially warm-blooded, with the ability to keep its deep body temperature at about 80 degrees. Every year, from summer through late fall, varying numbers of Leatherbacks get stranded on beaches. Strandings may be storm-related, but are also caused by entanglement in fishing gear, illness, ingestion of plastic (Leatherbacks mistake floating plastic for jellyfish, their favorite food), and other, unknown causes.

The other sea turtle species are hard-shelled and depend on their surroundings to keep them warm and active. They occur in the relatively mild waters of the Gulf Stream and in Atlantic coastal waters during warm-weather months. When cold weather sets in and ocean temperatures begin to drop, however, a turtle that finds itself in cooling water stands a good chance of being overwhelmed by its environment. Once the ocean water hits 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the turtles can become cold-stunned, and at lower temperatures they will most certainly suffer trauma and possible loss of life.

The turtles being found in Cape Cod Bay are all suffering from cold shock. The largest numbers are endangered Atlantic Ridleys. From early November through early December, 170 of these creatures came ashore in distress and in danger of dying. The smallest (some only 9 inches long) and most cold-vulnerable turtles came ashore first, followed, in time, by progressively larger individuals.

Bob Prescott and an army of volunteers have been scouring the beaches of Cape Cod trying to find the turtles as soon as possible after they strand. This winter, with exceptional beach coverage, about 90 percent of the turtles have been found in time to be rescued. They are brought to the New England Aquarium for rehabilitation, and later flown to marine aquariums in Florida, North Carolina, and other states for more rehabilitation and eventual release in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sea turtles around the world are having a tough time of it lately. Raccoons and other creatures dig up their eggs, while humans endanger them with oil spills, shrimp nets, fishing tackle, and slaughter of nesting females. Luckily, there is a legion of dedicated naturalists looking out for them.

For information on the sea turtle strandings, visit the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary web site