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.

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