Stranded: Sea Turtles on the Edge at Cape Cod

Winters are harsh on the shores of Cape Cod — not a place for tropical sea turtles. But each winter Greens, Loggerheads and Kemp’s Ridleys wash up, stunned by cold ocean temperatures and disoriented from the hooked shape of the geography. This is why Tony LaCasse of the New England Aquarium calls the Cape “The Deadly Bucket.” With help from volunteers, biologists at Mass Audubon and the New England Aquarium do their best to rescue and rehabilitate these turtles and then fly them to be released into warmer waters.

Strandings have averaged around 90 per year until 2014, when a record breaking 700 turtles got stranded on the shores of the Cape. The most commonly found species, the Kemp’s Ridley, is also the most endangered with around 1,000 nesting females. About 80% of the turtles found are juvenile Kemp’s around 3-5 years old. “We’re not sure why we’re seeing an increase in strandings while also noticing an overall decline in population of Ridleys,” says Connie Marigo, Director of the NEAQ Rescue and Rehabilitation Program, the oldest program of its kind in America. They are some of the world’s great navigators, but for this part of their journey, a little help is needed…

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Nick Picariello, volunteer with Mass Audubon holds his hand up to block the sun to search the shoreline for cold stunned sea turtles on Duck Harbor beach on Cape Cod in November. Because of the supermoon the tide is two feet above average at 12.67 ft. “I love the Audubon and what they do. It connects us to the environment and it just feels good,” says Picariello.


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Rebecca Shoer, Turtle Field Coordinator at Mass Audubon teaches a group of volunteers on the proper protocol for when a turtle is found on November 2 at Duck Harbor. Mass Audubon relies on the dedication of volunteers to walk the beached throughout the inside of Cape Cod at high tides to find stranded sea turtles.


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Kathy Herrick, volunteer with Mass Audubon searches for cold stunned sea turtles at Indian Neck beach on a cold and windy November night just after the high tide. “I thought I would never touch a turtle but the fact that they would die without us finding them get me out here in this horrible weather,” says Herrick. The volunteers head out to walk miles of beach in all weather and at all hours to save the endangered species.


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Endangered sea turtles travel from the Gulf of Mexico and back again each year to summer in the waters of Cape Cod. As the winter approaches the turtles become cold and are disoriented from the hooked shape of the geography, which Tony LaCasse, from the New England Aquarium calls “The Deadly Bucket.” It is up to the volunteers to walk the miles of beaches after each high tide in the early winter months to find and rescue the stranded turtles.


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Rebecca Shoer, Turtle Field Coordinator at Mass Audubon records information from each turtle such as visible abrasions and shell measurements. Average years of strandings are around 90 until there was a record breaking 700 turtles the same winter Boston broke the all time snowfall record in the 2014-2015 season.


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A Kemps Ridley swims in a holding tank where the turtles are slowly acclimated to warmer waters inside the New England Aquarium rehabilitation center in Quincy, the oldest of its kind in America. Each turtle is numbered and kept track of throughout the rehabilitation process.


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New England Aquarium workers, interns and volunteers pack a small plane filled with endangered sea turtles as they prepare to take off from Shoreline Aviation in Marshfield to transport 11 sea turtles to The National Aquarium in Baltimore for further rehabilitation before they are released into the warm waters of the Gulf.


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Nick Picariello, volunteer with Mass Audubon shelters a turtle from the cold wind with his own jacket as he walks a cold stunned Kemp’s Ridley to the car to be transported from Duck Harbor beach to the Mass Audubon center in Wellfleet on Cape Cod in November. These dedicated volunteers help save hundreds of endangered sea turtles each winter.


If you find a turtle on the beach between September and January call the Turtle Hotline: (508) 349-2615 ex 6104

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