Archive for the ‘Marine Species’ Category

“Crowdsaving” the World’s Most Endangered Sea Turtles

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

Cold-Stunned 70-Pound Juvenile Loggerhead Sea Turtle Strands on Truro Beach

Summer ends and fall brings dramatic change to the Massachusetts shore. Not just leaf color, but the entire fabric of coastal life transforms from easy summer to rugged winter. Fluffy clouds, cerulean skies and lazy sands are blown away by autumn storms that howl across Cape Cod Bay. Summer ripples swell into monster breakers that reshape beaches and spread ocean wrack along the shoreline. Scattered among piles of seaweed lie sea turtles tossed ashore like flotsam and jetsam to flail helplessly in lethal conditions. Yet, thanks to selfless “crowdsaving” by an army of volunteers who patrol Cape Cod beaches during the worst and most dangerous weather, thousands of sea turtles have been rescued from near death, rehabilitated back to health and returned to the ocean to restore severely endangered populations.

Tiny Loggerhead Hatchling Begins Its Perilous Oceanic Journey That May Detour into Cape Cod Bay

As shadows lengthen and days shorten, conditions recur each fall for sea turtle strandings on Cape Cod. Juvenile sea turtles meander for several years from the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the Southern Coast presumably to “sow their wild oats.” First, as hatchlings they float in islands of sargassum and drift northward with the Gulf Stream. Then, as juveniles they swim landward to transition from this pelagic sanctuary to a coastal lifestyle. As turtles reach the Gulf of Maine and fall arrives, dropping water temperatures cue them to migrate south.

Arm of Cape Cod Stretches Thirty Miles into the North Atlantic

The arm of Cape Cod stretches thirty miles into the North Atlantic like a giant seine net and “catches” waves of sea turtles as they migrate southward. Hotter summers yield higher ocean temperatures, and warmer water entices turtles to swim closer to the mainland. Southbound turtles that pass west of the Provincetown “fist” collect inside Cape Cod Bay. At first all is well as easy New England summer lingers into September.

Cold-Stunned Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Strands Helplessly on Wellfleet Beach

Soon, though, a wall of cold Atlantic water forms along Stellwagen Bank to seal turtles inside the bay with no escape route. November arrives and Cape Cod Bay chills, too. When water temperature nears 50° F, sea turtles become cold-stunned and immobilized. They are tossed around the bay by wind and sea like flotsam and jetsam. Their survival now depends on intense fall storms to drive them ashore and dedicated humans to rescue them. The earlier in the season that powerful storms strike, the sooner sea turtles strand on beaches; and the earlier turtles get tossed ashore, the better their odds of survival.

Species of Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles on Cape Cod

The vast majority, 90% or more, of stranded sea turtles on Cape Cod are juvenile Kemp’s ridleys that mostly range in age from two-to-three years old. They are about the size of large dinner plates and hit the scales at around 4 to 8 pounds. Kemp’s ridleys remain one of the most endangered sea turtles in the world.

Juvenile loggerheads make up the next most frequent stranded turtle species. Even though still youngsters, they are massive animals that can range in weight from 25 to 100 pounds. Green sea turtles are the third most common species and can vary in size from only a few pounds to as large as small loggerheads. Occasionally, a hybrid sea turtle strands and even more rarely a hawksbill comes ashore.  Whatever the species, nearly every cold-stunned sea turtle is a juvenile on a once-in-a-lifetime passage through Cape Cod Bay.

Sue Wieber Nourse Rescues Five Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles at Bound Brook Beach

In 2014 a record-breaking 1250 cold-stunned sea turtles washed up on Cape Cod Bay beaches, four times the previous record season. They were rescued by an army of volunteers organized by Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to patrol scores of miles of storm-blasted coastline each high tide, night and day, through November and December. Mountains of banana boxes were donated to house and to transport turtles. Tons of clean towels appeared from nowhere to line boxes and comfort distressed animals. Convoys of volunteer vehicles rushed rescued turtles 100 miles from the Wellfleet Bay sanctuary to intensive medical care at the New England Aquarium facility in Quincy. Expert staff and trained volunteers worked around the clock to save each precious patient. Once medically stabilized, turtles were dispersed to dozens of aquariums and marine centers throughout the East Coast for release or for additional rehabilitation that would last from a few weeks to several months.

Volunteer Drive Rushes Loggerhead and Boxed Kemp’s Ridleys to New England Aquarium

Responding to an unprecedented crisis and an overwhelming need beyond the in-house resources of local conservation groups, hundreds of individuals and scores of organizations banded together into an extemporaneous, yet powerful community dedicated to “crowdsaving” the world’s most endangered sea turtles. Together they rescued hundreds of Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead and green sea turtles from the brink of death and returned them to the wild to help restore endangered and threatened populations.

Don Lewis Releases Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle in Osterville

When these turtles wash ashore on Cape Cod, they have already cleared survival obstacles that claim 999 out of 1000 sea turtle hatchlings. Except for the geologic accident of Cape Cod’s hook, created by the retreating Laurentide glacier thousands of years ago, they would safely migrate back to southern waters to mature and to breed. Now, with but a brief interruption for “crowdsaving,” they will reach their natal waters to do what comes naturally.

More Than 150 Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles Strand on November 21st, 2014

As sure as late October leaves frost on Halloween pumpkins, the sea turtle stranding season will soon explode in Cape Cod Bay. Already a handful of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles have appeared early on Cape beaches in what appears to be pre-cold-stunned condition. With the first sustained storm in November, the stranding season will kick off in earnest.

Massive Juvenile Loggerhead Sea Turtle Awaits Rescue Between Tides

Mass Audubon will deploy patrols to search for stranded turtles around each high tide. Still, in these life and death situations, there can never be too many eyes on a beach. During stranding peaks, turtles can be found throughout the 12-hour tidal cycle, stuck in oozy flats, drifting helplessly along the shore or simply beached. A turtle stranded on an ebbing tide might wait six to nine hours for the next scheduled patrol and may not survive. When a cold-stunned sea turtle strands on a beach, hypothermia sets in as freezing winds drain the body of heat; death comes quickly if turtles are not recovered soon after they become exposed to frigid air. Off-peak beach walks can and do safe lives.

Turtles Strand on Bayside Beaches Opposite Prevailing Wind Direction

Selecting the best beach depends largely on wind direction over the previous 24 hours and, of course, luck. Turtles strand on bayside beaches. Place an imaginary stickpin in the center of Cape Cod Bay and draw a broad invisible arrow from the pin toward the shore in the direction the wind is blowing. A west wind tosses turtles on beaches from Orleans to Truro. A north wind drives turtles toward Barnstable and Dennis. Prevailing northwesterly storms push sea turtles onto beaches from Brewster to Eastham.

Sue Wieber Nourse and Jared Nourse Rescue Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley from Chapin Beach after Midnight

Nighttime beaches can be extremely dangerous for the inexperienced. What seemed like a safe family beach in daylight transforms into a potentially lethal scene at night. Storm surf deafens; high tide swallows beaches; breakers pound cliffs and seawalls. Nothing looks, feels or sounds familiar. Finding landmarks is nearly impossible. Nighttime patrols should be left to the professionals.

While 2014 has surely braced folks for the new stranding season, no amount of preparation can suffice once the overwhelming day after day, night after night rescue season kicks in. Staff and volunteers fatigue, supplies dwindle, rescued numbers mount, facilities overcrowd, and turtles still pile up on beaches with every tide.


(1)   Support Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and the New England Aquarium who play essential roles in rescuing and saving these exquisite animals

(2)   Offer to volunteer for beach patrols and as turtle drivers

(3)   Donate towels and thick foam pads for turtles to rest upon

(4)   If you discover a stranded sea turtle on the beach,

  1. Do NOT put it back in the water
  2. Do NOT remove it from the beach
  3. Move it ABOVE the high tide line
  4. Cover it with dry seaweed to prevent hypothermia
  5. Mark it with distinctive beach debris
  6. Call MAS WBWS at 508-349-2615 ext. 104 to retrieve the turtle
  7. Give clear directions from the nearest landing or beach access

(5)  Sea turtles are federally protected and require a permit to transport

Three-Year-Old Teague Whalley Rescues World’s Most Endangered Sea Turtle from Bourne Beach

Sea turtles are exquisite creatures, and the opportunity to save them makes for unbelievably blissful moments. Cape Cod geology and weather combine to create special circumstances every fall that trap hundreds of tropical and semi-tropical turtles inside the bay. Crowdsaving has effectively rescued thousands of these precious animals from certain death. Working together, every day people from three to ninety-three transform themselves into superheroes who secure the future of the world’s most endangered sea turtles. Be a hero, rescue a turtle, and save the world.

First Ever Triple Nesting Diamondback Terrapin Discovered on Massachusetts SouthCoast

Friday, July 10th, 2015

Diamondback Terrapin #825 after Depositing Third Nest of 2015

Diamondback Terrapin #825 came ashore Thursday afternoon, July 9th, on a private beach in Wareham, MA. She deposited a nest in a sand-enhanced “turtle garden” adjacent to the beach; 13 beautiful pink eggs weighing a total of 100 grams. Michele Zollo waited for momma to cover her nest, and then scooped her up for the Turtle Journal team to document.

Terrapin #825:  Three Nests, 39 Eggs, 36 Days

BIG SURPRISE! This day marked her THIRD confirmed nest in 2015. Terrapin #825 nested with the earliest tranche of terrapins in early June, depositing 14 eggs at this “turtle garden” on June 4th. Nineteen days later, #825 returned on June 23rd to lay 12 eggs in a nest very close to her first clutch. Now, after an interval of 17 days, #825 dropped 13 eggs in the same “turtle garden” for a total of 39 eggs in 36 days! We had never before confirmed a triple nester on Massachusetts SouthCoast. We had speculated; we had inferred the possibility, but July 9th marks the first time we have actually had the same turtle in hand for physical confirmation of three nests in one season.

Identification of Diamondback Terrapin #825

Exact identification proves critical in definitive confirmation of events such as these. Terrapin #825’s facial skin markings are quite unique in the SouthCoast system and are easily recognizable, as is her extremely “feisty” behavior.  However, a bit more empirical are her “numerical” marks.  Etched with a triangular file in her marginals are marks that we interpret as #825 in our system of marking; see the image immediately above which can be expanded by clicking.  Each turtle in the Buzzards Bay population has a unique number.  The line through the nuchal (split nuchal), the scars on her first left costal, and the nick in the “10” marginal provide additional confirmation of her identification.  Digital images at each capture re-confirm these markings, just as digital photographs of her plastron reinforce her identification.  We also take six morphological measurements of length and width at specific points of her carapace and plastron, as well as her girth and her weight at each capture.  In addition to the scientific data these measurements provide, they also confirm Terrapin #825’s identification.  

Broadmarsh Habitat of Diamondback Terrapin #825 in Wareham

Terrapin #825 lives in an extremely protected estuary system off Buzzards Bay in Wareham, Massachusetts. The habitat is called Broadmarsh and lies near Swifts Beach. This area is so well protected that it warms up quickly in the spring, coaxing the first local terrapins out of winter brumation and inspiring the earliest nesters to come ashore.

Michele Zollo (left) and Sue Wieber Nourse Admire Terrapin #825 after Third Nest

A few years ago Michele and Louis Zollo, recognizing that their private beach served as an important terrapin nesting site, augmented the habitat with several tons of sand, creating a safe and inviting “turtle garden.” Michele carefully watches her girls as they waddle in from the bay to deposit eggs from late May through the middle of July. She calls the Turtle Journal team to document the terrapins, and Michele protects nests with predator excluders to save as many of these hatchlings as possible. In late summer, Michele releases them into the abutting nursery salt marsh.

Terrapin #825’s Third Nest of 2015 in Broadmarsh “Turtle Garden”

On June 24th, 2013, an unmarked female terrapin, later marked #825, crawled ashore to nest in the Broadmarsh “turtle garden,” probably for her second nest of the season. The next time we saw Terrapin #825 was June 26th, 2014, when she placed a nest with 15 eggs in the “turtle garden,” again likely her second nest of the season.

Diamondback Terrapin #825 with 13 Eggs in Her Third Nest of 2015

This 2015 year proved a special year for #825 or at least her research colleagues. In the 36 days from June 4th to July 9th, she deposited 39 eggs (~313 grams) in three clutches of 14, 12 and 13 eggs, respectively. She became the first confirmed triple nester on the SouthCoast of Massachusetts.

NOTE:  The average clutch size in Massachusetts is 12.5 eggs which we round up to 13 because half eggs are tough to come by (smile). The normal number of clutches per year for Massachusetts terrapins is two.  So, #825 maintained the same clutch size while laying an extra third nest.

June 4th:  Terrapin #825 First 2015 Nest with 14 Eggs

June 4th, Terrapin #825 at a mass of ~1409 grams came ashore at the Broadmarsh “turtle garden” as only the second nesting terrapin of the year at this site; a leading edge lady. The first nester at this site had beaten her by 30 minutes. She deposited a clutch of 14 eggs and returned to the bay at a mass of 1297 grams.

June 23rd:  Terrapin #825 Second 2015 Nest with 12 Eggs

(2 Broken)

June 23rd, Terrapin #825 at a mass of ~1378 grams came ashore at the Broadmarsh “turtle garden” for her second nest of the season. She deposited a clutch of 12 eggs weighing a total of 101 grams in a nest very near her first nest. Her egg chamber stretched from 5 inches to 9 inches below the surface. She returned to the bay at a mass of 1277 grams.

NOTE: For comparison, in 2014 #825 weighed 1186 grams after depositing a second clutch of 15 ~8 gram eggs. Her mass coming ashore would have been ~1306 grams.

INTERVAL:  19 days between first and second clutches. The average interval between clutches for Massachusetts terrapins is 17 days.

July 9th:  Terrapin #825 Third 2015 Nest with 13 Eggs

July 9th, to the surprise of all, Terrapin #825 at a mass of ~1335 grams came ashore at the Broadmarsh “turtle garden” to deposit her THIRD NEST of the season. She is the only diamondback terrapin to be confirmed as a triple nester on Massachusetts SouthCoast. She dropped 13 eggs weighing 100 grams in a nest a few feet away from her previous two nests. She returned to the bay at a mass of 1235 grams.

INTERVAL:  17 days between clutches.

Her 12 second clutch eggs weighed an average of 8.4 grams each; her 13 third clutch eggs averaged 7.7 grams each. Her mass investment in the first clutch was 8% of her weight, 7% for the second clutch, and 7.5% for the third clutch.

Terrapin #825 Weighed 1235 Grams after Depositing Her Third 2015 Clutch

From her initial mass of 1409 grams to her ending mass of 1235 grams after three clutches, she lost a total of 174 grams while investing 313 grams into her clutches’ egg mass. So, during those 36 days, she also “gained” 139 grams in dietary in-take to make up the difference. Terrapin #815 averaged a gain of 4.3 grams a day from June 4th to June 23rd, and 3.4 grams a day from June 23rd to July 9th.

NOTE:  In considering whether this triple nester represents a special situation, an isolated case or her normal nesting pattern, we should keep in mind that the 2014-2015 winter was cold, snowy and long, and that the 2015 spring was delayed. Nesting on the SouthCoast began on time at the very end of May, neither early nor late.

Confirmation of a triple nester within the SouthCoast terrapin population brings into question certain assumptions about northern-most terrapin nesting and population models. We will need to monitor very carefully other sites within Massachusetts terrapin populations to determine whether this phenomenon is simply a one-off event, or a rare situation, or perhaps relatively normal for the season’s earliest, leading edge terrapin nesters.

CAUTION:  It remains extremely challenging to confirm a three-time nester, given that definitive proof for the first case had escaped our notice during three and a half decades of very intense diamondback terrapin observations within Massachusetts estuaries since 1980.

How to Find a Diamondback Terrapin Nest

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Diamondback Terrapin #95 Laying Eggs off Sippican Harbor 

Well, as Turtle Journal has learned with decades of experience, the easiest way to discover a diamondback nest is to find mother terrapin digging, and then patiently, silently, stealthily waiting for her to complete the process.

Diamondback Terrapin #95 Nesting in Sandy Patch at Wrack Line

With a bit of luck and skill, you spot the turtle from a considerable distance and you wait with telephoto lens, so that you don’t disturb her.

Diamondback Terrapin #95 Laying Eggs into Nest Chamber

If she detects you before beginning to actually lay eggs, the terrapin will most likely abandon the nest.

Diamondback Terrapin #95 Laying Eggs into Nest

If she’s already started laying, as with Terrapin #95 above, the turtle may continue until she deposits all her eggs.

Diamondback Terrapin #95, Her Excavated Nest, 12 Perfect Eggs

When she finishes laying eggs, and the terrapin begins to cover and disguise the nest, you can approach.  Here Diamondback Terrapin #95 deposited 12 perfect eggs.

Diamondback Terrapin Nesting Run Tracks & Nest (Top Right)

Sadly for researchers, terrapins are fairly cleaver and stealthy themselves.  So, you learn to read tracks.  Like a tank, turtles leave “tread marks and plastron drags” as they crawl up from the water and meander along the beach.  With the right sand conditions, you get beautiful tracks like those above.  The direction of travel can be discerned from the upside down commas that turtles leave as they push off with their rear legs.

Diamondback Terrapin Nest (Left) and Nesting Run Tracks

And if conditions are just perfect, like this morning, the nest itself shows as an unmistakable pattern in the sand.  Within a few hours, wind and sun will erase all signs, and the nest will disappear.

Excavated Diamondback Terrapin Nest and 13 Perfect Eggs

So, as with all things in life, 99% of success is determined by just being there at the right time.  The challenging part, though, is figuring out where and when.

NOTE:  Diamondback terrapins are a protected species in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Please alert Turtle Journal, 508-274-5108, if you find a turtle or a nest.  We’re always ready to respond.

First Over-Wintered Terrapin Hatchling Emerges @ Tabor’s Schaefer Lab Beach

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Sue Wieber Nourse Rescues Exhausted Over-Wintered Hatchling 

While checking for threatened diamondback terrapin nesting at Tabor Academy’s Old Schaefer Lab beach this morning, Turtle Journal’s Sue Wieber Nourse discovered an over-wintered terrapin hatchling meandering in the sand.

Emerged Over-Wintered Terrapin Hatchling Meanders

The Schaefer Lab beach is a documented terrapin nesting site, and hosts the most critical nursery salt marsh habitat for infants and juveniles in the Inner Sippican Harbor.  (See Rare Turtle Nests at Tabor’s Schaefer Lab and Two Rare Terrapin Nests Hatch @ Old Schaefer Oceanology Lab.)

Inaugural Recipient of Jaeger Chair in Marine Studies

Prior to founding Turtle Journal and becoming CEO of Cape Cod Consultants, Sue Wieber Nourse was honored as the inaugural recipient of the endowed Jaeger Chair in Marine Studies at Tabor Academy.  Sue and her advanced marine science students engaged in highly lauded and original scientific research, funded by a prestigious National Fish & Wildlife Foundation grant, that confirmed the existence of threatened diamondback terrapins in Marion and documented previously unknown nesting sites for these rare turtles.  Once on the brink of extirpation, their continued survival stems from this successful conservation initiative.

Sue Rescues Exhausted and Dehydrated Hatchling

This little baby hatched early last fall and opted to remain buried upland rather than venturing into the great wild world.  Given the brutal winter Massachusetts suffered, the hatchling may have chosen wisely.  This morning, though, the terrapin baby exhausted itself trying to reach the marsh through concrete obstacles exposed on this sand starved beach.  She had collapsed dehydrated and weak when Sue rescued her.  The hatchling is recovering at Turtle Journal headquarters, receiving appropriate TLC before being returned to the wild.


Diamondback Terrapin Nesting Run Tracks and Completed Nest

With Sue checking Schaefer, East Marion and Wareham nesting beaches, Don Lewis patrolled other SouthCoast nesting sites.  At one Aucoot Cove site, Don found a half dozen diamondback terrapin nesting tracks from the nighttime high tide.  He discovered the clear sign of two completed nests within inches of each other.

Eleven Large, Pink, Freshly Laid Eggs

This first nest contained 11 very large, pink and freshly deposited eggs in a nest chamber four to eight inches under the sand.  Because of their highly vulnerable location, eggs from this site are harvested and relocated in a protected turtle garden.  When hatchlings emerge, they are released back at the site of their natal nest.

Another Freshly Complete Diamondback Terrapin Nest

Within inches of the first nest, Don spotted signs of the second completed nest.

Ten Big, Beautiful Pink Eggs Harvested from Second Nest

This second nest contained ten large, pink and freshly deposited eggs in a nest chamber about three to six inches below the surface.

Third Nest Laid on the Overnight High Tide

A third nest was discovered about ten feet from the first two.  It contained 11 very large and freshly laid eggs in a chamber three to eight inches deep.  In sum, the Turtle Journal team recovered 32 healthy eggs from this site for protecting in our safe turtle garden.

Baby American Eels Arrive in SouthCoast Estuaries

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

American Glass Eel (Elver) [Anguilla rostrata]

On Sunday, May 3rd, the Turtle Journal team observed the first baby American eel (elver) of the season on the SouthCoast of Massachusetts. Transforming from the nearly invisible glass eel state, elvers remain difficult to spot as they swim and wiggle upstream through estuaries, rivers, creeks and streams to reach fresh water wetlands where they will grow to adulthood. As the week progressed more elvers appeared.

Last year, Turtle Journal documented the odyssey of American eels, in the article titled:  Saving Elvers on the SouthCoast of Massachusetts. Eels are the only catadromous fish in North America … as opposed to the anadromous salmon and herring.  That is, they are born as plankton-like critters in the Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea, float with currents toward the coast, transform to glass eels and then elvers as they make their way upstream to estuaries, swamps, ponds and lakes where they reach adulthood, and then swim back to the Sargasso Sea to mate and die. The opposite of salmon and herring (anadromous fish).

Elvers Fighting Gushing Water

We found elvers backing up at a local culvert. Spring flood waters augmented by snow melt seemed too strong for most of the elvers to make the passage upstream. Last year we observed thousands of elvers backed up at this culvert during the apex of the spring run in mid-May.

Elvers Resting in Backwater behind Culvert

On both sides of the culvert, a quiet backwater was created by the swirling creek. Elvers took refuge in these calm waters before making repeated attempts to traverse the culvert to reach the ponds and reservoirs upstream.

Elvers Take Shortcut to Wetlands


While elvers are extremely difficult to spot in the babbling creek water and even more challenging to capture, the Turtle Journal team scooped a small bucket of elvers and “crossed” them to the upstream side of the culvert.

Releasing Elvers Above the Culvert

No, we can’t personally save them all, but we can definitely save some of them; and we can lobby to have an elver passage created to save even more American eels on the SouthCoast.