Sea Turtles Provide Picture of Plastics Problem

“I’m going to lay out the entire length of this turtle’s gastrointestinal tract on the table,” Wellfleet Bay sanctuary director Bob Prescott told a very quiet room of Wayland seventh graders.

The students were getting the rare chance to observe the necropsy of a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle as part of a new curriculum on marine plastics pollution developed by Wellfleet Bay education and science staff.

Sanctuary director Bob Prescott presides over a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle necropsy for Wayland high school students.

Educator Morgan Peck says schools and students are increasingly concerned about the impact of plastic and other ocean debris on marine animals, especially endangered and threatened sea turtles. “The fact we found so many macro-plastics during our winter necropsies this year provided the perfect platform to explore this topic,” she notes.

In a necropsy last winter, this string from a balloon was found running through the entire GI tract of a Kemp’s ridley. The string was in the process of destroying the turtle’s intestines and eventually would have proved fatal.

The sanctuary’s sea turtle conservation program includes a series of necropsies each winter at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on turtles that wash in dead. “The cold-stun phenomenon provides a pretty rare chance for sea turtle researchers to have access to young turtles that simply aren’t seen very often,” Morgan says, “so this is an amazing opportunity for students.”

Bob says this year more marine plastics were found in necropsied turtles than in all previous years combined.

Sea turtle research associate Karen Dourdeville (left) and sanctuary director Bob Prescott prepare to open the turtle’s GI tract so that students can examine the contents under microscopes.

As promised, Bob deftly removed the GI tract of a Kemp’s ridley turtle that died in last year’s cold-stunning event on the Cape and laid it out, starting with the turtle’s esophagus, which is lined with backward-pointing papillae and direct food to a turtle’s stomach.

Seeing this organ and understanding how it functions provides a vivid illustration of why marine plastics are so dangerous to sea turtles.

“If a sea turtle consumes plastic or other marine debris, it can’t regurgitate. The object either passes through and gets excreted, or it remains stuck inside the turtle where eventually it can kill the animal,” Bob explained.

Along with seeing samples of macro-plastics recovered from previous necropsies, the Wayland students looked at tissue samples under microscopes to search for very thin fibers, which is how some micro-plastics appear.

While some students searched turtle tissue for micro-plastics, others examined gastrointestinal samples taken from previous necropsies to see what turtles were eating before they became cold-stunned.

Morgan reminded the students that, although the idea of tackling the plastics problem is daunting, they have power as consumers and citizens to urge companies and policymakers to make changes in the production and disposal of single-use plastics.

Innovative new consumer products show how easy it can be to replace the plastics in our lives.

If your school is interested in learning more about Wellfleet Bay’s marine plastics program, contact Morgan Peck at mpeck@massaudubon.org

When Box Turtles Get their Wake-Up Calls

The following post was contributed by turtle aficionado and volunteer Tim O’Brien who’s been studying the sanctuary’s box turtles for the past few years.

For the last two winters I have been studying the brumation ( reptile hibernation) habits of the sanctuary’s Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) population to get a better understanding of the environmental cues that trigger emergence from the turtle’s long winter snooze. Identifying these cues could improve our conservation efforts by limiting potential aboveground turtle mortality in the spring.

Box turtles avoid the stressful winter temperatures by burying themselves in soft soil or detritus and remaining dormant. Using radio transmitters and temperature data loggers, I followed the turtles into brumation and recorded their behavior within their burrows.

A classic brumation burrow.

Last year I studied two turtles and followed each into brumation using the transmitters. Once a turtle was in its burrow, I placed a temperature data logger directly adjacent to the carapace. Using the data from this device, I noted that each turtle emerged in the spring when the soil temp in the burrow reached 50 degrees. This year I followed five turtles–4 females and one male–and again monitored them all winter long. Would this larger study group provide different results?

As for the start of brumation, most of our box turtles this year entered their burrows by November 1st.  But one male– we call him #348– waited until November 18th. This variation in schedules is not unusual. One group of turtles will enter brumation on the early side in mid-October and typically emerge fairly early by mid-April. Other turtles, such as #348, enter brumation late and also emerge late, sometimes waiting until mid-May. Individual brumation periods are a life history strategy that helps to protect the population in the event of a sudden spring frost or other environmental event.

This past winter I checked the turtles every two weeks, noting depth and length of brumation burrow, position in the burrow, and any form of site disturbance from a predator (thankfully there were none). I had a data logger in with each turtle as well as one control logger positioned above on the surface at a central location at the sanctuary to record air temperature.

Ah, spring! This female’s wake-up call came in mid-April–pretty early, given how cold and wet the month was.

After the turtles emerged I removed the temp loggers from the burrows and downloaded their data. Our turtles averaged 175 days in brumation. The data loggers are set to take a temp reading every four hours, so that’s over a 1000 data points per turtle!

The temperature graph for # 348, who was the last of my study turtles to go into brumation and the last to emerge.

After crunching the data, here is what I learned. The lowest soil temperatures recorded (temps that the turtles were exposed to) in each burrow ranged from 31.8 degrees to 34.5 degrees for a mean average of 32.6 degrees. (Box turtles can withstand freezing temps for short periods of time in their burrows). The average soil temperature within the burrow for the duration of the study ranged from 39.8 degrees to 44 degrees for an average of 41.5 degrees. This is significant because the depth of the burrow ultimately determines the soil temperature that the turtles will be exposed to (soil temps are less harsh as the depth of the burrow increases).

I find it interesting that turtles who brumated at different depths and in divergent areas of the sanctuary were all exposed to a fairly narrow range of average soil temperatures. How do they know how deep to dig to avoid sustained freezing temperatures? This is yet another mystery waiting to be solved!

This is me, with my left hand deep into turtle # 348’s long burrow. In the past two years, it’s ranged from 8-10 inches, more than double the average. As a result, his burrow never got quite as cold as the others.

Emergence soil temperature ranged from 49 degrees to 54 degrees for an average of 51.1 degrees. So again, for the second year in a row and with a larger study group size, the turtles emerged when the temp of the ground around them in their burrows reached approximately 50 degrees. It’s important to note that a turtle may emerge over a period of days, lured outside initially by a sunny day and then temporarily sent back in the burrow by a chilly one.

A late riser! This female box turtle, who was not part of the study, waited out the Cape’s fickle spring weather to make her emergence over Memorial Day week-end! The sand on her shell indicates she had yet to experience her first cleansing rainfall of the year.

What’s next? This year I have a different set of turtles on radio transmitters along with my two long-term study turtles. I’d like to attach button-type temperature loggers directly to the carapace of the turtles as they enter brumation this coming fall. Having the logger directly attached to the turtle will give me more precise temperature readings. The more we know about our box turtles, the better stewards we can be for them.

Why Watch Pine Warblers?

When he’s not doing bird research at Wellfleet Bay’s bird banding station, what biologist James Junda really likes to do is—more research!

For the past year, James has had his eye on Pine Warblers. It’s a species that hasn’t been studied very much and the sanctuary offers a special opportunity to do so.

Pine Warblers are among the first warblers to return in spring and breed on the Cape. (Photo courtesy of Jason Lacson).

“They’re very common here and they have small territories,” James explains. “ They can be hard (to study) because they nest atop pines that can be 100 feet high or more. It makes observing courtship and nest productivity almost impossible.”

James’ study site is the sanctuary campground where the pines, like most on the Outer Cape, are shorter than average. Also, the understory is less dense, making it easier to track a bird moving around in lower branches.

Last summer James and his team color-banded 15 Pine Warblers breeding in the campground. Territorial males were lured to a net by a decoy and Pine Warbler recordings. It worked within minutes.

Hold that pose! Amazingly, this decoy Pine Warbler was made with a 3D printer by researcher Frankie Tousley! (photo courtesy of Frankie Tousley).

One immediate goal was to see how many of those color-banded males would return to the campground this spring and where. “Between 6 and 8 of our birds have returned and set up their territories in the campground,” James says.

Study birds are banded with unique color band combinations for re-sighting purposes.
This bird with the orange/red, blue/silver bands showed up at the sanctuary’s feeders in
early April. (Photo courtesy of Jason Lacson).

Color banding the birds allowed James’ team to locate each male’s territory on a grid map of the sanctuary’s campground (looking from south to north):

Using the color band codes, can you find the campground territory that belonged to the bird
shown above?

Determining a bird’s territory takes time. A procedure known as “wander mapping” is used in conjunction with the campground grid. It starts with spotting a bird and then recording where it wanders. It’s much easier said than done!

“You’ll note sex and any color bands,” James explains. “Then behaviors such as foraging, and where the bird is foraging, and types of foraging—gleaning, hovering, hawking, or sallying—and then other behaviors like nest-building, singing, bill wiping, preening, fighting, looking around…”

But you can help with the study without working so hard. James is encouraging visitors to take photos of any color-banded Pine Warblers they see at the sanctuary. There’s also a map of the study site available on his website.

Watching for the Birds of Spring: Banding Station Marks Fifth Year

Wellfleet Bay’s bird banding operation hit a modest milestone last September, marking its fifth fall migration since it set up shop in fall of 2014.

After a hiatus of about 30 years, mist nets returned to Wellfleet Bay in September of 2014.

We realize that for bird monitoring 5 years is still very much a blink of an eye compared, say, to a period of 30 years. But in that relatively short period time hundreds of school kids and adults have had the chance to watch wild birds and the people studying them at very close range.

But here are some things we can state with certainty about last fall: Banding manager James Junda and his team captured 2,083 birds, nearly 1,500 of them new birds. Seventy-four species were netted, the second most since the first banding session in fall of 2014.

Here were the top ten species for fall of 2019:

Pine Warbler
Gray Catbird
Black-capped Chickadee
Blackpoll Warbler
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
American Goldfinch
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

-Pine Warblers apparently had a great breeding season in 2018. Note the color bands on this bird’s legs. The bands are used to re-sight breeding birds being studied at the sanctuary.

Pine Warblers, which breed on the sanctuary and elsewhere in the region, had a huge year—325 birds compared to only 32 in 2015. James says the addition of a new net in Pine Warbler- preferred habitat on the sanctuary may be partly responsible for that strong showing.

One of the challenges of drawing conclusions about bird abundance over short periods of time is the impact of weather. Cold fronts that overlap with a given species’ migration window can influence what kind and how many birds you capture among years.

We saw our greatest diversity of species—a total of 42– during a prolonged period of cold fronts with northwest winds in the second half of October, right smack in the middle of peak migration for kinglets and sparrows. Swamp Sparrows managed to make our top ten list with about triple their usual numbers and there was a similar increase for Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows. (In fact, White-crowned Sparrows were 5 times more numerous last fall than in all previous years combined!) The delightful Brown Creeper, also an October migrant, ranked 12th on our list, with 42 captured.

Note the curved bill on the Brown Creeper, perfect for grabbing insects and spiders from the furrows of tree bark. These birds are almost impossible to see as they hunt on a tree trunk.

But some familiar fall birds were relatively scarce. We logged far fewer American Goldfinches—75 compared to 171 in 2017—and Yellow-rumped Warblers were down, with only 34 captured last fall. We had over a hundred of each species the previous two years.

Where were these guys last fall? Yellow-rumped Warblers or Myrtle Warblers are one of the most common fall migrants on the Cape. They’re the only warbler that overwinters here in significant numbers.

The banding station’s fifth anniversary was marked by at least one celebratory moment. The first chickadee banded here in fall of 2014 was recaptured. It was fun to see this old friend still alive and well!

This bird clearly calls Wellfleet Bay home. It was first banded when the station opened in September of 2014 and as of last October, it was still here and looking great.


Connecting the Dots … and Reducing Stress for Sanctuary’s Box Turtles

This post was contributed by volunteer Tim O’Brien who’s currently doing a study of eastern box turtles and works to conserve other threatened and endangered turtles.

In 2018 we instituted a non-permanent paint dot marking system for the sanctuary’s eastern box turtles. Here’s why.

There’s anecdotal evidence suggesting that repeated handling of box turtles over time can soften their predator response mechanism. I see this in some of our older resident turtles who have been exposed to decades of day campers and public programs. This could be an issue if a turtle encounters a predator and does not fully and quickly withdraw into its shell.

Unlike most turtles, a box turtle can pull its head and appendages fully into its shell. A hinge in its bottom shell folds up to close off the front, practically sealing the animal in a perfect box. Predators apparently get tired of waiting for a turtle to emerge and abandon it.

Each year we try to process (measure and weigh) every box turtle on the sanctuary at the beginning of the season and again at the end of the season. Often, turtles are captured and processed by interns and volunteers who may not know that the turtle has already been worked up and entered into the data base in a given year. Some turtles are inadvertently processed many times in a year, sometimes even on the same day! It can be stressful to them. To help alleviate this problem, we instituted a paint dot system this year to minimize handling of turtles.

Most of our box turtles are permanently identified using a variation of the Cagle marking system (making tiny notches in the marginal scutes with with a small file). This allows us to uniquely identify the turtle for life.  But what we needed was a short term way to determine whether or not a turtle had been processed in a given year. So now in addition to reading the permanent scute notches, we put a small dot of non-toxic, water-based paint on a vertebral scute that corresponds to the month the turtle was processed. Each of the five vertebral scutes correlates to a month (May – Sept).

Turtles can be active for more months than it has vertebral scutes. So if a turtle is found in April, the paint dot would still go on the first scute for May. Same thing for a turtle found in October; the dot would share the September scute. (Drawing by Tim O’Brien).

The color of the paint denotes the year and we will change the color every year. We use paint colors with earth tones to somewhat blend in with the turtles natural carapace colors. For example, V2 (the second vertebral scute) corresponds to the month of June and yellow was the paint color for 2018. So a small paint dot on V2 indicates that the turtle has had its initial processing of 2018 in June and there is no need to handle this turtle again until the fall. The paint dots seem to last the season, but can easily be scratched off for next year. We used this system all season in 2018 and it seemed to work fine.

Can you tell when this turtle was last handled? Hint: the turtle is facing us. (Photo by Tim O’Brien).

We hope that using this new system will prevent over-handling of our resident box turtles so they can live comfortably and be as safe from predators as possible!

A box turtle demonstrates the predator response for which it got its name. (Photo by Tim O’Brien).

Picturing a Sea Turtle Necropsy

We often say that the sea turtle necropsies we conduct each Saturday in winter at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are not for everyone. It’s a long day, there’s a lot of standing, the lab is chilly, and there are dozens of dead turtles being cut open.

But those conditions have not discouraged sea turtle volunteer Karen Strauss, a gifted photographer. She’s been documenting these sessions for seven years. In that time, Karen and her camera have captured some compelling and informative images.

One of the headlines from of this year’s sessions are the visible plastics discovered in some turtles.

Remains of what appears to have been a plastic shopping bag. (Photo by Karen Strauss).

There’s been growing public concern about the massive amount of plastics that end up in the world’s oceans. Karen’s pictures provide a sample of that problem and, as she says, make the abstract real. “When you show photos of balloons in a turtle’s stomach, the problem goes from something people have heard about to something more tangible.”

Remains of plastic balloon fill a turtle’s stomach (Photo by Karen Strauss).

This year, Karen and camera were on hand to document the lobster bands found in a Kemp’s ridley’s intestines. These bands are placed on the lobsters’ claws when they go to market so they don’t use them on each other or anyone handling them.

Lobster claw bands are a common plastic found on Cape Cod beaches. (Photo by Karen Strauss).

Karen’s work also reveals the elegance of sea turtle physiology, such as the small organs that work with the larger ones, which allow the animal to perform a basic life function, such as eating. “One of my favorite structures in a sea turtle are the papillae that line the esophagus,” she says. A picture of a piece of sea lettuce trapped in the papillae of a green sea turtle’s esophagus stayed with her. ” You think about this as maybe the last thing this herbivore ate.”

The ivory-colored papillae line the turtle’s esophagus and serve to keep food moving toward the digestive tract even when the turtle expels water through its mouth. (Photo by Karen Strauss).

Karen says she understands why some people may not find a sea turtle necropsy appealing. But instead of seeing dead turtles, Karen says she sees a special opportunity.

Wellfleet Bay is very fortunate to have use of a state of the art necropsy suite on the Quisset campus of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. (Photo by Carol “Krill” Carson).

“Every year, we have the largest collection of juvenile Kemp’s ridleys—basically healthy animals that have died only because of cold-stunning.” The necropsy sessions are attended by academic and government scientists engaged in research which ultimately could result in better conservation for an endangered species. The sessions, she notes, are also valuable for students. “We’re training the next generation of scientists by giving them a rare experience.”

Bridgewater University masters student Michael Rizzo examines a tissue sample. (Photo by Krill Carson).

No matter how many pictures she’s taken during Wellfleet Bay necropsy sessions, Karen says it’s the chance to learn that keeps her coming back each winter. “Just when I’m about ready to say we’ve seen it all, we find something new.”

Karen and her camera focused, yes, on an intestine. (photo by Krill Carson).

Close-up or macro photography is very challenging. To get a good picture of a turtle’s digestive tract that had a balloon string running through it, Karen had to merge 18 or more pictures together into a massive single image that showed both the full length of the intestines as well as all the detail. “Looking so closely at a turtle’s anatomy has given me the chance to learn so much more”, Karen says. ” I love to find out how things work.”

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle volunteer Karen Strauss. We’re grateful that Karen works hard to document our necropsies so well and that she’s so generous in sharing her terrific work.  Our thanks, too, to Carol “Krill” Carson of the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance for sharing her picture of Karen and many dozens of others over the years.

Sea Turtle Conference Allows Researchers to Learn and Compare Notes

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle research associate Karen Dourdeville.

Recently, I was fortunate to be able to attend the International Sea Turtle Society Symposium, in Charleston, SC, one of the largest sea turtle meetings in the world.

The annual symposium is truly an international event, and it’s exciting and invigorating to meet “sea turtle people” from many different countries and to hear about some of the good science occurring with sea turtles all over the world.  The symposium also drives home the urgent conservation needs that many sea turtle populations are facing.  Attendees are very interested in research here in the northwest Atlantic sea turtle feeding grounds—which include the waters of the Cape and Islands.

Karen Dourdeville (right) at the Sea Turtle Society Symposium with New England Aquarium sea turtle rescue partners, Connie Merigo (left) and Linda Lory
(far left).

One big plus from the symposium is looking for new ways that WBWS sea turtle work can be put to research/conservation use, such as possibly contributing samples from our dead cold-stuns toward a study of a blood test for sexing sea turtles. At the moment, determining the sex of an immature sea turtle generally can’t be done unless the turtle is necropsied.

I attended two workshops. One focused on learning more about male sea turtles, which are difficult to study because they don’t come ashore to nest. Research on males would help give a better picture of overall sex ratios and male reproductive behavior, both of which are crucial to achieving a sustainable sea turtle population.

The other workshop discussed proposed changes to the US Endangered Species Act, which has protected many species, including sea turtles, since the act was passed in 1973. These changes could take effect as early as this summer. One of the biggest changes under consideration would weaken the definition of a “take”, that is, the number of turtles injured or killed, for instance, as by-catch in commercial fishing or human activity on nesting beaches.

Despite some of the sobering news on the conservation front, it was gratifying to talk to staff from different sea turtle rehab facilities who care for some of the Cape Cod cold-stuns. Five of our cold-stunned loggerheads are in rehab at the South Carolina Aquarium, and hopefully they will all be released in the coming months.

Sea Turtle Conservation in Your Backyard: Cape’s Cold-stun Season Inspires Local Students

While hundreds of cold-stunned sea turtles were being rescued from local bayside beaches this  fall, Outer Cape school children–most of whom live within 15 minutes or less from a bay beach—are getting front row seats for what’s become a unique natural phenomenon that occurs practically in their own backyards.

Chatham third graders on a sea turtle patrol at Crosby Landing in Brewster. (Photo by Sheila Hoogeboom)

In a special curriculum developed by Wellfleet Bay educators, students from Truro to Chatham have been learning about sea turtles, how to respond when turtles strand on local beaches in the fall, as well as what causes turtles to come ashore.

Truro second graders engage in a sea turtle life cycle game in their classroom.

The program, which for some schools can run for a full year, covers fundamentals about reptiles, sea turtle species, adaptations, and life history. It also includes field experiences at the wildlife sanctuary and on the beach.

On the day they were patrolling for cold-stunned turtles, Chatham students got lucky: they happened to be at Crosby Beach on Brewster’s bayside when they got word someone had found a turtle.

Wellfleet Bay turtle staff member Ben Thyng pulls a Kemp’s ridley from seaweed which the rescuer had placed over the turtle for protection. The driftwood stick in foreground was used to show Ben where to find the turtle.

During a visit to the sanctuary, Wellfleet fifth grade students had a chance to see the sanctuary’s sea turtle “ICU” where staff members measure and weigh turtles before their ride to the New England Aquarium for rehabilitation. Like the staff, the kids kept their voices low, which is standard protocol for helping to reduce turtle stress.

Having the chance to see a sea turtle at such close range initiates discussions about broader topics: sea turtle biology, the threats turtles face from vessel strikes, entanglements, and marine plastics, and the role of climate change in the cold-stun phenomenon. Despite the many challenges facing turtles, Cape kids learn they have a special opportunity to help protect them.

Practicing sea turtle rescue with a plastic turtle.

Our thanks to these organizations for making Wellfleet Bay’s sea turtle curriculum possible in our local schools:

Wellfleet SPAT- (Shellfish Promotion and Tasting)

The Chatham Fund of the Cape Cod Foundation

Mass Cultural Council – STARS Residency
(Students and Teachers working with ArtistsScientists, and Scholars)

Sizing up a Sea Turtle Season

Wellfleet Bay has been rescuing sea turtles for more than 30 years and almost every season has its memorable moments.

Sea turtle staffer Elora Grahame is happy to be processing one of the few live turtles that stranded following a killer Thanksgiving weekend.

Unfortunately, the 2018 cold-stun season will likely be remembered in large part for the Thanksgiving Day week-end deep freeze that killed scores of turtles, most of which would have been successfully rescued under normal conditions.

Over Thanksgiving weekend most bayside beaches between Eastham and Dennis were frozen above the high tide line. At one point we had to tell our dedicated volunteers to stand down because of the dangerous walking conditions.

A very few lucky turtles managed to make it through that ice box weekend, including this Kemp’s ridley who turned out to be a repeat customer. After stranding here last year and being successfully released in August, this young turtle managed to find its way back into Cape Cod Bay where it got trapped again!

Kemp’s ridley number 985113002181787 must love Cape Cod Bay, the New England Aquarium or both! This time it may have earned a free trip to Florida.

2018 was also our second busiest cold-stun season ever—with 800 turtles recovered, a little more than half of them alive.

Martha Nolan, who took part in a Cape Cod Field School on marine animal rescues, carefully holds a cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley. Photo by Carol “Krill” Carson.

We’ll also remember the year for giving us  the biggest loggerhead we ever rescued—a nearly 300 pound female pulled from Great Island in Wellfleet. Lucky for her (and us) she stranded the day before the Thanksgiving cold front arrived.


Thanks to that National Park Service truck and ranger Chris Anderson, this big girl was successfully moved off Great Island in Wellfleet and transported to the New England Aquarium where she continues to recover. Photo by Elora Grahame.

Our work doesn’t stop when sea turtles no longer come ashore.

Soon, our Saturdays will be spent at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for necropsies of the turtles that didn’t survive their ordeals. These sessions increasingly are attended by government, academic, and other scientists working to fill in the many gaps in what is known about sea turtle biology and life history. Each year, our necropsies collect more and more samples for research aimed at shedding light on where young sea turtles are traveling, foraging, what they’re eating, and at what stage of their lives.

Roksana Majewska of North-West University in South Africa has been looking at species of diatoms, single cell algae with silica walls, that attach to sea turtles. Wellfleet Bay has been providing her samples from cold-stunned sea turtles on Cape Cod. The kinds of diatoms that live on sea turtle shell and skin may eventually provide information about turtles’ movements. Here, Roksana takes samples from a nesting olive ridley in Central America.

Losing a lot of turtles to an early season cold snap was the toughest part of the fall. But it certainly helps to know that at least several hundred of these critically endangered sea turtles survived and that the rescue program is supporting conservation research as well as unique field opportunities for students.


Monomoy Regional High School students deploy a surface drifter off Sesuit Harbor in Dennis. The drifter project, designed to improve our understanding of currents in Cape Cod Bay, is now in its sixth year. This fall more than a half dozen drifters were released, many of them washing up on the same beaches turtles did. Photo by Ben Thyng.

Saving a Sea Turtle for the First Time: A Student Shares her Story

When my biology professor announced that the class had a weekend trip dedicated to rescuing cold-stunned sea turtles in Wellfleet, we were thrilled! We discussed six papers, and read more than twenty about the physical and biological factors of cold-stunning to prepare for the trip. But reading these papers could never have prepared me for the breathtaking feeling of rescuing sea turtles in real life.

The first thing that Unity College tells its new students during convocation is that we are going to make a difference. Attending a school that focuses on being environmentally conscious and encourages experiential learning inspires a future focused on protecting the blue planet. But sea turtles are charismatic megafauna.They are the celebrities of National Geographic and often serve as a poster child for plastics pollution mitigation. When you live in New England, you never think you are going to see those tropical species in person. Mass Audubon gave us that opportunity.

After a five-hour drive from Maine on a Friday afternoon, and being up even later for preparatory lectures on cold-stunned turtle procedures, you would think a 5:00 a.m. wake-up call would produce groggy young adults. But the last thing you could see in our eyes was regret. Everyone was cheerfully stuffing hand warmers into their gloves and socks to get ready for the surveys ahead.

Unity students walk the high tide line and watch the water’s edge for stranded sea turtles.

After two hours of marching through the sand, we were disappointed we didn’t find anything. I felt sorry for turtles that couldn’t make it to shore, and were instead freezing in the bay. As we were gearing up to head back to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, our guide, Bob Prescott, received a call about a sea turtle found in Brewster.

It’s always good to have a group on the beach to rescue a loggerhead.

He asked us if we had room in one of our vans for a 90 pound loggerhead. We guaranteed that we had plenty of room!

Putting advance preparation into action!

Like wildlife paramedics we loaded the lethargic turtle into our trunk and carefully remembered our brief training. Loading the turtle. Fifty-five degrees. Carapace upright. Flippers comfortable. Be quiet. Is this happening? I was scared to drive because I kept thinking that if we hit a pothole, the turtle would die, and I’d go to jail for killing a member of an endangered species!

The loggerhead is unloaded before being weighed, measured and assigned a number by Wellfleet
Bay staff. Photo by Cheryl Frederick.

But we made it to Wellfleet Bay and with the staff’s help, were able to process it and measure its straight and curved carapace lengths, widths, and weight.

Large calipers are used to get straight line measurements for a turtle. 

Then, the loggerhead was ready to take its next step towards rehabilitation in Quincy at the New England Aquarium.

Smaller calipers for smaller turtles.

We were able to process a few Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that had been brought to the sanctuary, observe a professional Kemp’s ridley necropsy, and do another beach survey.

But nothing compared to that first feeling of rescuing a sea turtle for the first time. Upon reflection, I am forever grateful to Wellfleet Audubon and Unity College for providing this rare opportunity to interact with marine life. It made me feel like an educated biologist-in-training and am so glad I’m able to spread the mission of protecting biodiversity. Thank you, Wellfleet Bay!

This blog post was contributed by Jordan Baker, a marine biology major at Unity College in Unity, Maine.