Tag Archives: wellfleet

Barbara and her husband Nick with a cold-stunned Loggerhead sea turtle

In Your Words: Barbara Brennessel

Barbara Brennessel is a long-time volunteer at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, where her work includes cold-stunned sea turtle rescue.

Barbara and her husband Nick with a cold-stunned Loggerhead sea turtle
Barbara and her husband Nick with a cold-stunned Loggerhead sea turtle

My husband Nick and I have volunteered at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for more than 15 years. In the spring, we survey and tag Horseshoe Crabs in Wellfleet Harbor.
Later in the summer, I monitor and protect Diamondback Terrapin nests, an interest sparked by attending a Cape Cod Field School program at Wellfleet Bay.

Barbara Brennessel measuring a Diamondback Terrapin
Barbara Brennessel measuring a Diamondback Terrapin

The highlight, by far, is how we mark the end of each year by volunteering to rescue cold-stunned sea turtles on Wellfleet and Truro beaches. These turtles get trapped in Cape Cod Bay’s cooling waters, especially when it gets below 50 degrees F; they become cold-stunned and thus lose the ability to swim south into semi-tropical and tropical areas.

We keep our phones handy so we can respond to calls from Wellfleet Bay’s Turtle Rescue Team. When the wind is howling from a westerly direction, we anticipate
being called to walk along a specific stretch of beach to look for turtles. We prepare for the cold, the wind, and a good sandblasting.

Our gear is always ready near the front door: boots, down parkas, hats, gloves, and headlamps for night patrols. This past year, we included face masks to our supplies so that we could adhere to COVID protocols. Our sled for transporting turtles from the beach is in the trunk of our car, along with a banana box or two in case we are asked to bring a turtle to the sanctuary.

Barbara during a Cape Cod Field School program on Diamondback Terrapins
Barbara during a Cape Cod Field School program on Diamondback Terrapins

We have seen some spectacular sunrises and sunsets while on turtle patrol. It is quite eerie yet also amazingly beautiful to be on a beach in the middle of the night. If you see a headlamp headed your way, who else could it be but another sea turtle volunteer!

Most of the two dozen or so turtles we rescued in 2020 were Kemp’s Ridleys, but the last few were loggerheads. Every live, rescued turtle has the potential to contribute to future generations of these endangered reptiles. It is tremendously satisfying to know that these rescued turtles have a chance to live a longer life, mature, and produce baby turtles.

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares their story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them. If you have a story to share about your connection to Mass Audubon, email [email protected]  to be considered for In Your Words in a future issue! 

Saving Stranded Sea Turtles

Sea TurtleMolly Shuman-Goodier of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary reports on this year’s sea turtle stranding season.

Every year come fall, the lower air and water temperatures lead to the stranding of many “cold-stunned” sea turtles on Cape Cod.

Strandings are not a new phenomenon: plenty of fish, turtles, and birds wash up each year. Yet, sea turtles are of particular interest because they are endangered, and we owe them a little help.

Why They Get Stranded

The kemps ridley, loggerhead, and green sea turtle juveniles that cold stun on the Cape are ectothermic organisms, meaning they cannot regulate their body temperatures. This means that the turtles unfortunate enough to swim into Cape Cod Bay get stuck as the water (and their body) temperature cools.

Unable to swim actively, the winter temperatures render the turtles helpless against the strong winds and tides. They wash up on bayside beaches were Mass Audubon staff and dedicated volunteers patrol tirelessly after high tides to locate turtles. Once found, the turtles are then sent to the New England Aquarium for rehab.

The Season So Far

After a record high of 198 total sea turtle sightings this summer, we knew 2012 would be a busy cold stun season. Volunteers and staff at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary worked around the clock during the busy period from November 22 to December 1, recovering over 150 turtles in 11 days, some weighing up to 100 pounds.

As December 13, 253 turtles have washed up cold-stunned, making this year the 2nd highest stranding year out of over 30 years on record. What makes this year especially significant is that 173 turtles have been encountered alive, meaning recovery rates at the aquarium will be higher than ever.

That said, there are still a couple more weeks left in the season, so we’d best get back out on the beaches!

Learn more about sea turtle strandings from Wellfleet Bay and what happens to the turtles once they’ve been rescued.