“A night not fit for man nor beast,” as W.C. Fields might say, with winds howling from the west-northwest at a steady 25-to-30 knots, punctuated by an occasional 50 mph gust. Unfortunately, these are the very conditions in which tropical sea turtles strand each fall on bayside beaches. Trapped by the geological seine called Cape Cod jutting forty miles into the North Atlantic, tropical sea turtles become cold-stunned as bay water temperatures plunge below 50º F. By an accident of their natural lifecycle, most of these trapped and cold-stunned turtles are two and three year old Kemp’s ridleys, a critically endangered species and one of the rarest sea turtles in the world. So, on this night not fit for human or reptile, turtles would be tossed ashore like flotsam and jetsam, condemned to certain hypothermic death unless rescued from the beach by a dedicated team of staff and volunteers from Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
Bob Prescott, sanctuary director, and Dennis Murley, senior naturalist, watch wind and weather conditions throughout the day to best deploy rescuers for night patrols. What during daylight seems a ”walk on the beach” transforms at night into a dangerous obstacle course exacerbated by blinding darkness, pounding surf, scouring sandblasts and deafening winds. “Don’t attempt this on your own. Leave it to the pros.”
Sue Wieber Nourse and Jared Nourse Rescue 10-Inch Ridley
This Saturday night, they decided to send out patrols to bayside beaches from Eastham through Orleans and Brewster to Dennis; that is, beaches in the reciprocal direction of the prevailing wind. The Turtle Journal team drew the westernmost stretch from Chapin Beach to Sea Street in Dennis. As rescue nights go, this one rated a 10 with a waxing gibbous moon on high and the Constellation Orion rising in the eastern sky. Heck, it wasn’t snowing; not even raining!
Cold-Stunned Kemp’s Ridley Rescued from Chapin Beach
About a quarter mile east of the Chapin Beach ramp, the Turtle Journal team of Sue Wieber Nourse (senior partner, Cape Cod Consultants) and Jared Nourse (Williams College) found a juvenile Kemp’s ridley sea turtle rolling in the waves. Measuring a mere 10-inch carapace (top shell) length, the turtle was tossed upside down on the beach. “It looked just like salty brine foam in the moonlight,” observed Ms. Nourse. She plucked the turtle from receding waves before it was pulled back out to sea and examined it carefully. She pronounced it “quite lively.”
Rescued Ridley and Wind-Teared Sue Wieber Nourse
Since Sue had to walk the animal back into the teeth of the WNW blow, she placed the little turtle under her top coat to protect it from the hypothermic effect of the blasting wind. So, back at the Turtle Journal research vehicle, the protected ridley was doing just fine (thank you) while Sue’s exposed eyes were tearing in the relentless wind.
Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley Measures 25.5 Cm Carapace Length
The Turtle Journal team searched six more miles of coastline, but found no other cold-stunned turtle in Dennis. In Brewster, Dennis Murley and Mark Faherty recovered one Kemp’s ridley each. Bob Prescott hit the jackpot with one Kemp’s ridley from Boat Meadow in Eastham, plus one Kemp’s ridley and one good-sized green sea turtle from Skaket Beach in Orleans. All told, Mass Audubon rescuers had saved six cold-stunned sea turtles; five critically endangered Kemp’s ridleys and one threatened green sea turtle.
Cold-Stunned Kemp’s Ridley Strands with High Tide
“How Can I Help Save Stranded Sea Turtles?”
If you encounter a sea turtle on the beach, first DO NOT put it back into the water. Doing so will condemn the animal to almost certain death. DO NOT remove the animal from the beach. A special license is required to transport federally protected species. Instead, DO move the turtle above the high water line. DO cover the animal with dry seaweed to prevent the wind from causing additional hypothermia. DO mark the covered turtle with a gaudy piece of flotsam or jetsam, perhaps a buoy or anything unusual … so that rescuers can easily find the critter hidden under a pile of seaweed. DO call Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary at (508) 349-2615 to report the turtle. If there is difficulty getting through to this number, you can always reach the Turtle Journal team at our 24/7 hotline (508-274-5108). When giving directions from the landing or beach to the turtle, DO use left and right (when facing the water) rather than cardinal directions. DO give the walking time it takes to reach the turtle from the landing (turn right and walk five minutes) rather than describing distance in feet, yards or fractions of miles.
Thank you for helping save these rare and beautiful creatures. If you’d like to volunteer to patrol beaches during the day or drive rescued animals to Boston for medical care, contact Cynthia Franklin (email@example.com), volunteer coordinator at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (508-349-2615).
With fog so thick you could be forgiven for mistaking Wellfleet Harbor for the Thames, Outer Cape Cod enjoys lingering mild temperatures as Thanksgiving dawns. Chilled surface waters and warm bay breezes stir a ghostly brew of mists, clouds and dampened echoes. While not actually “raining,” you soak clean through to the bone just walking down the beach.
Small Torpedo Ray Emerges from Fog
A stranded torpedo ray had been reported by cove residents earlier this week and had been spied by Mass Audubon staff last weekend near the boat ramp at Shirttail Point. The last sighting was “under the high bank at Chipman’s Cove,” which stretches from Duck Creek in the north to the springtime terrapin mating aggregation in the south. From Old Pier Landing we walked the bank south and found only a decomposing 7-foot ocean sunfish that had been buried, but was now re-surfacing through weathering tides. We headed north and discovered the torpedo ray carcass in front of a seawall and high bank opposite the town pier at Shirttail Point.
Small Torpedo Ray in Wellfleet Harbor
This carcass had been heavily depredated and was quite decomposed. It measured just a tad over one foot wide and only two & a half foot long from snout to the trailing edge of the tail fin.
Phil the Ring Necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)
Whatever one’s personal viewpoint on hunting and fishing, and most of us exhibit a complex set of contradictory and complementary opinions on these topics, pheasant hunting season on Cape Cod magnifies these feelings. According to the Humane Society of the United States (see Cape Cod National Seashore “The Killing Fields“), ring necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus)are not natives of Cape Cod, but of Asia. They are farm raised off Cape and “transported weekly in Massachusetts state-owned trucks and unceremoniously dumped into the cool night air in stumpy forests of scrub pine and scrub oak.” According to the Humane Society, these animals “lack the basic skills to survive in this foreign habitat.” Consequently, some say pheasants offer an easy shot for beginners who may go on to develop into lifelong hunters.
Salt Marsh Trail at Sandy Neck Park, Barnstable
Several days ago the Turtle Journal Team visited Sandy Neck Park in Barnstable. The barrier beach and dunes protect the expansive salt marsh ecosystem of Barnstable Harbor which hosts the second largest population of threatened diamondback terrapins in Massachusetts (and perhaps all of New England). The salt marsh trail falls between nesting dunes on the north (left) and salt marsh on the south (right). Walking this road in September and October, you can be guaranteed to encounter a terrapin hatchling scrambling from its nest into the safety of the salt marsh nursery habitat … or at least sets of hatchling tracks that evidence babies that have recently crossed the dirt road.
Ring Necked Pheasant Runs onto Trail
Instead of a hatchling we were surprised to encounter Phil, a very nervous ring necked pheasant, scurrying along the salt marsh trail. When Phil saw us, he slipped into the dense vegetation to hide … as quietly as a bulldozer with backup alarm blaring. Since that tactic obviously wasn’t working, Phil jumped back onto the dirt road and sped down the path like a bowlegged roadrunner stuck in first gear.
Pheasant Hunting Season through November 28th
We remembered the sign we had glanced on entering the back trail and wondered whether Phil would be able to acclimate to this foreign environment before hunters and dogs chased him down and flushed him out for a clear shot. Heck, his amateurish evasive skills placed him face to face with the Turtle Journal Team for long enough for us to get a dozen close-up “shots” and to stare him eyeball to eyeball. There’s almost no dense cover to provide safety and camouflage for a non-native ring-necked pheasant.
Sue Wieber Nourse at Sandy Neck Park
We left Phil to his own devices and privacy as we crossed over the dunes to the bayside beach to search for stranded sea turtles at high tide. We forgot about our friend Phil as we enjoyed the stark beauty of Sandy Neck in mid November.
Hunters and Dog Scouring the Scrub Brush for Phil
Tranquility soon faded as bright orange gear dotted the horizon and a barking dog zigzagged across the dunes scouring the terrain for scent of Phil. As we proceeded to the bayside, more hunters appeared on dune tops and more dogs howled to the chase. We wondered how poor disoriented Phil had survived this long into the day and wondered if he’d ever see another night. In fact, we even worried a bit about ourselves as the lone non-hunters crossing the dunes without bright orange gear.
More Traditional Thanksgiving Prey
Native American Wild Turkey
A more traditional Thanksgiving prey and a wiley critter that can hold its own in its native habitat is the American wild turkey, Ben Franklin’s nominee as the emblematic symbol for the fledgling United States of America. Ben thought eagles paled in the face of a brave, valient American turkey. At least a wild turkey understands the Cape Cod ecosystem and wouldn’t get caught dead (or more preferably alive) in a barren barrier dune. Then again, we don’t dump wild turkeys into foreign habitats in the … excuse the phrase … dead of night.
We’d like to celebrate Thanksgiving with a look back at last fall when Turtle Journal posted several articles on our native wild turkeys. We’ve seen a lot of turkeys this season, too, but they’ve managed to avoid that perfect ”traffic stopping moment” documented below.
Happy Thanksgiving from the entire Turtle Journal Family. We wish you another year of discovery. We hope you’ll join us in the joy of saving the world, just one species at a time … turtle, ocean sunfish, harbor seal, pilot whale, wild turkey, channel whelk, nine-spotted ladybug or even ring necked pheasant. If it crawls, swims, flies, slithers, scampers, hops or just exists, it’s worth saving.
The Stranding Weekend field adventure offered by Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in mid November is clearly a hands-on, participatory event. As a gentle fall lingered into the Ides of November, there were concerns that the pre-planned Stranding Weekend would prove nothing more than “a walk on the beach.”
Breakers Roll into Scusset Beach in Bourne
Thanks to Mother Nature, Hurricane Ida, then tropical storm and finally powerful nor’easter pounded Cape Cod with driving rain and gale force winds blowing directly from the North Atlantic. While water and air temperatures remained a tad too high to induce cold-stunned sea turtle strandings, the Cape presented a variety of marine species to observe, especially during and immediately after a nor’easter.
After a wonderful candlelight dinner in the Wellfleet Bay Nature Center Friday evening, participants endured a brief stranding introduction by weekend leaders, Bob Prescott (sanctuary director), Dennis Murley (senior naturalist), Sue Wieber Nourse (marine scientist and master educator) and Don Lewis (Turtle Guy). Everyone bundled into layers upon layers of hopefully waterproof clothing, adjusted headlamps and flashlights, loaded into the Mass Audubon van and the Turtle Journal Element and headed to Chapin Beach in Dennis in search for stranded creatures at the nighttime high tide.
Sandy Neck Teams
Led by Dennis Murley (center) & Sue Wieber Nourse (right)
Bright and early Saturday morning, participants geared up again. Two teams led by Dennis Murley and Sue Wieber Nourse climbed in the van to head to the Sandy Neck barrier beach in West Barnstable. With winds blowing from the east northeast, stranded animals were more likely to be found on beaches at the west end of Cape Cod.
Chipman’s Cove Team Discovers Quarter Ton Ocean Sunfish
Another team under Don Lewis patrolled Scusset Beach on the other side of Cape Cod Canal in Bourne, then hit Campground Beach in Eastham to confirm the stranding of a juvenile torpedo ray and finally visited Chipman’s Cove in Wellfleet to document a freshly stranded male ocean sunfish.
Examination of Male Ocean Sunfish at Chipman’s Cove
After teams reassembled at the Sanctuary for a great lunch, it was time to saddle up and put our backs into the enormous channel of moving the quarter ton, male ocean sunfish from the beach at Chipman’s Cove to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for a scientific necropsy. You may recall that the scientific name for ocean sunfish (Mola mola) is derived from the Latin word for millstone. Perhaps that gives you some idea of the challenge ahead.
Nothing creates comraderie more solidly than a backbreaking team build … and moving a quarter ton deadweight more than qualifies as a backbreaking exercise. You sign up for hands-on experience; you get hands-on experience!
Measuring Length of Male Ocean Sunfish
Back at the sanctuary with the Mola mola intact, participants began the process of taking detailed measurements. Krill Carson of NEBShark joined the leadership team on Saturday for a scientific necropsy of the ocean sunfish.
Measuring Dorsal Fin of Male Ocean Sunfish
Once external measurements were completed, a detailed necropsy commenced to scientifically document the anatomy of the Mola mola species and to collect certain tissue samples for further analysis. During the autopsy, we determined that this animal was a male.
Juvenile Female Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
The next morning began with a necropsy of a juvenile Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that had stranded on Sandy Neck beach the previous weekend.
Bob Prescott Prepares Necropsy of Female Kemp’s Ridley
Despite a large, well-healed probable shark bite in its lower right quadrant, this specimen was assessed to have been in rather healthy condition prior to getting trapped and cold-stunned in Cape Cod Bay. Based on the autopsy, the gender of this animal was determined to have been female.
Necropsy completed, participants headed to the Town Pier to board the Naviator for a two hour cruise of Wellfleet Bay. The destination would be Jeremy Point and Billingsgate Shoals at the southern end of the Great Island peninsula. The calm after the storm (Hurrican Ida) brought a thick fog that lay like a comforting blanket over the seascape. Shorebirds, driven by gale winds to seek shelter in Wellfleet Bay, filled the harbor. About a half mile west of Indian Neck, we encountered a bull pilot whale … a rare sighting from the Naviator. Mass pilot whale stranding have occurred with such frequency in Wellfleet that one of its principal estuaries is named Blackfish Creek after the species.
Curious Gray and Harbor Seals Lounge on Sandbar
On a sandbar off Jeremy Point, we ran into a large gathering of gray and harbor seals, many of whom were as curious about us as we were about them.
Turtle Journal visited Chipman’s Cove in Wellfleet on Outer Cape Cod this morning. Parking at the end of Old Pier Road, we found a fairly fresh ocean sunfish carcass about 25 feet to the right/north of the Town Landing.
Ocean Sunfish Snout, Mouth, Eye, Gills and Pectoral Fin
Using Don’s sneakers as a gross ruler, this sunfish measured ~ 5 feet long and ~ 6 feet wide/high.
Seven Foot Ocean Sunfish in Chipman’s Cove
Fifty feet to the left/south of the Old Pier Town Landing, we discovered a rapidly decomposing ocean sunfish. Gross measurements yielded a length of ~ 7 feet and a width/height of 7.5 feet.
The video documents the two ocean sunfish Turtle Journal discovered in Wellfleet’s Chipman’s Cove today.
Partially Necropsied Ocean Sunfish on Lieutenant Island
Our next stop was the west shore of Lieutenant Island to check out a reported ocean sunfish that had stranded last weekend. This specimen had been partially necropsied to ascertain its gender … before an astronomic 12-foot tide could strand the team on the island.
Pilot Whale Bones Emerge from Old Salt Marsh
About 100 yards north of the stranded sunfish, winter tides have eroded the beach on the west shore of Lieutenant Island, once again exposing pilot whale bones from the peet of a long dead salt marsh. Last year we found four pilot whale skeletons in this area before summer sands raised the beach level above this burial site. See Discovery of Historic Pilot Whale Bones Hints at Cape Cod’s Past.
Exposed Pilot Whale Bones on Lieutenant Island
With giant ocean sunfish and pilot whales, Turtle Journal had a BIG day this Thursday.
Yet, there was still more to come. CapeCast, the broadcast vehicle of the Cape Cod Times, published a delightfully hilarious and informative video on the large ocean sunfish that Turtle Journal discovered this weeked at Corporation Beach in Dennis. See Ocean Sunfish Strandings Continue on Cape Cod.
Click here or on the picture above to watch the CapeCast video … and ENJOY!