Turtle Strandings Explode on Cape Cod from Thanksgiving Freeze

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary turtle staffer Elora Grahame holds up a turtle found alive stranded on a Cape Cod beach.

HYANNIS – Local wildlife officials have seen a recent explosion in the number of cold-stunned sea turtles washing up on Cape Cod beaches.

About 600 turtles, the majority of which have been endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, have been found along bayside beaches from mid-October through early this week.

Mark Faherty, a science coordinator with Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, said the bitter cold around Thanksgiving caused an unusually high mortality rate this early in the season.

“This cold snap just started freezing the inshore waters. They were slushy,” Faherty said. “And any of the turtles that ended up on the beaches were just subjected to such low temperatures that they were goners.”

In the first half of the stranding season turtles, for the most part, strand alive. As water and air temperatures get colder later in the season the turtles that remain out in the cold water are less likely to be found alive.

Wildlife sanctuary officials expect this stranding season to be the second busiest on record. The busiest season was in 2014 when about 1,250 turtles washed up cold-stunned.

“We hope to get the turtles out of the water early in the season,” Faherty said. “We hope for some early season storms that get them up on the beach while they are still alive so we can get them up to the aquarium so they can start the rehab process.”

A frozen Kemp’s ridley found stranded during the Thanksgiving Day freeze.

Turtles found alive are taken to the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Quincy.

The number of live turtles being found is on the uptick as air temperatures have gotten warmer beginning over the weekend.

“With warmer air temperatures that gives them a fighting chance if they are still alive when they wash up,” Faherty said. “If it is in the 40s then they can handle that for a little while.

Sanctuary officials are hopeful there will be a higher percentage of stranded turtles found alive.

The turtles strand on beaches as they get caught by the Cape’s hook-like geography. As the water temperature gets below 50 degrees the cold-blooded marine animals are unable to move and are brought ashore by the winds and the tides.

“It’s just a matter of when we get them,” Faherty said. “They’ll all end up on beaches at some point and we just hope that we get them while they are still alive.”

Even though a relatively small percentage of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles wash up on Cape Cod beaches, Faherty said it is still important to try to save as many as they can because it is the rarest sea turtle in the world.

The majority of species remain in the Gulf of Mexico year-round.

Volunteers are continuing to comb bayside beaches as turtles have been stranding daily.

“This is one of those years where we seem to be like the Patriots – ‘No Days Off,’ in terms of people walking beaches and finding turtles,” Faherty said.

In a normal year there are days when the winds are not right and turtles are not expected to be found on beaches. Faherty said that has not been the case this year.

By BRIAN MERCHANT, CapeCod.com NewsCenter

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