Turtle World Turned Upside Down

Couple Find 60-Pound Loggerhead on Icy Beach

Earth’s axis tilted and the turtle world turned upside down this weekend.  There’s no other explanation for the bizarre events that created reptile bedlam on Cape Cod.  The evidence?  Oxymoronic “frozen tropical” sea turtles (greens, Kemp’s ridleys and loggerheads) wash ashore through icy slush and freezing sea water.  A goofy two-year-old diamondback terrapin juvenile waltzes across Bridge Road in Eastham during the teeth of a snowy gale.  And a fresh water painted turtle turns up frozen solid at high tide on a Cape Cod Bay beach in Truro!  Sounds a bit like a Marx Brothers movie, Night at the Ocean (sic).

Brutal Wintry Conditions for Sea Turtle Patrols

Let’s begin at the beginning.  There’s nothing so crazy as patrolling for tropical and semi-tropical sea turtles in a wintry wonderland.  Saturday brought two inches of snow, icy roads and frozen beaches to the Outer Cape.  Conditions for Saturday night’s sea turtle patrols proved the worst ever recorded by rescuers with wind chills tumbling below zero.  Sea water froze and several feet of icy sludge formed between beach and breakers.  Waves flash froze on the shoreline before they could retreat into the sea.  Sand pebbles became near lethal projectiles propelled in our faces by gale force winds.

Frozen Wave with Cold-Stunned Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

Yet, even in these conditions, turtles were recovered from the beach and some resilient ridleys came back from the brink.  Bob Prescott, director of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and leader of the sea turtle rescue team, snatched a smallish Kemp’s ridley from the beach with its flippers frozen into place.  “No hope for this one,” thought Bob as he returned home to get some rest and warmth.  When he rose the next morning, Bob checked the ridley and noted that its frozen flippers had relaxed, but with no sign of life, the assumption was that it had simply come out of rigor mortis.  Bob breakfasted and geared up for the frigid morning ahead.  As he gazed down at the turtle one last time, it winked back at him.  Alive!  (See video of this Kemp’s ridley below in the Sanctuary triage center as it prepares to go to Boston for medical treatment.)

Squid Flash Frozen by Wintry Storm

How cold was it Saturday night?  Bob found a live squid that had been tossed onto the frozen beach by gale-force winds and towering breakers.  Yet, by the time he reached his vehicle the animal had flash frozen.  You can imagine the effect of those conditions on raw human skin when you remove your gloves to check a cold-stunned animal … or to take pictures for Turtle Journal.  (ASIDE:  Don still can’t feel anything on the tips of his thumbs and forefingers.)

60-Pound Cold-Stunned Loggerhead Washes Ashore

Morning high tide came at 8 am.  Kerry and Russell, a couple from New Hampshire who are supporters of the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, joined the Turtle Journal team for a sea turtle patrol of Brewster beaches from Breakwater in the west through Point of Rocks to Windslow Landing in the east.  When you’re dressed for ski slopes or for scaling Mount Denali (McKinley) in Alaska, it’s really hard to think that you’re going out to search for tropical sea turtles.  Nevertheless, about three quarters of a mile into the walk we saw a large object washing onto shore in the frigid surf.

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Kerry & Russell Recover Loggerhead from Point of Rocks

A 60-pound loggerhead, the largest sea turtle so far in this stranding season, had beached at the Point of Rocks landing in Brewster.  The location was very lucky for us, because if you haven’t had the opportunity to carry 60 pounds of awkward, dead-weight loggerhead a mile down a frozen beach, you haven’t lived.  We would protect the turtle from any additional hypothermia and return with a vehicle to the landing to bring it to the triage center in Wellfleet.

Loggerhead Covered with Dry Seaweed above High Tide Line

We followed sea turtle rescue procedures to a tee.  We moved the loggerhead above the high water line, so that it wouldn’t get washed back out to sea.  We actually placed it in the lee of a sand dune to block the blistering wind.  We scoured the beach for dry seaweed and covered the turtle to prevent additional hypothermia now that it was out of the water.  We would have marked the spot with a gaudy object for a recovery team to retrieve if we weren’t coming back ourselves in a few minutes to load it into the Element for transport to the Sanctuary.

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Kerry & Russell Find Cold-Stunned 6-Pound Kemp’s Ridley

But before we could get back to the warmth of the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, we had to finish our patrol.  We still had about half a mile to go to reach our pre-positioned car at Winslow Landing.  (You may recall from Tiny Kemp’s Ridley Rescued in Freezing Conditions that we try to plan these patrols so that we are always walking with out back to the wind.  It helps to prevent two-legged cold-stunned mammal strandings!)  Midway between Point of Rocks and Winslow, Russell and Kerry spotted a 6-pound Kemp’s ridley sea turtle lying on the beach just above a flash-frozen wave that never made it back into the sea.  This ridley was in the same condition as Bob Prescott’s turtle from the night before; so, we always remain hopeful.

Kerry Examines Ridleys and Loggerhead in Triage Center

Back at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, we brought our turtles into the wet lab which serves as a triage center during stranding season.  Sea turtles are dry-docked in a cool room while they are processed and examined.  No turtle is considered beyond recovering until it has had ample opportunity … at least 24 hours … to show signs of life.  Too many times people have given up these animals as dead when they later snapped back to life.  As you may hear in the accompanying videos, these cold-stunned turtles have shut down to protect themselves with ever so slight heart rates at one to five beats a minute.

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Triage Center at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

The Kemp’s ridley sea turtles from Saturday night, including Bob’s “miracle” turtle, were being boxed and prepared for the long drive from the Outer Cape to the New England Aquarium in Boston.  Volunteers from New Hampshire had trekked down to Wellfleet to transport this precious cargo to emergency medical care and the start of rehabilitation.  These volunteers had also experienced the adventure of sea turtle patrols as they had walked Ryder Beach in Truro in Saturday night’s impossible conditions.

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Two-Year-Old Terrapin Juvenile Strolling in the Storm

Turning an unusual situation into the bizarre, we noticed a two-year-old diamondback terrapin juvenile in the wet lab.  What?  The story goes that a resident had spotted this wayward turtle crossing Bridge Road in Eastham during the weekend’s wintry gale.  There are nursery salt marshes on both sides of Bridge Road and perhaps this little critter had become unearthed from its hibernaculum by blustery conditions.  Still, the sight of a cold-blooded terrapin strolling down an ice and snow covered road in late November ranks up near the top of the Turtle Journal “Believe it or Not” Listing.

But it’s not at the top of the list, not even for this weekend’s strange string of events.

Frozen Painted Turtle Found on Truro Beach

Okay, here’s the really weird story of the day.  Yes, Virginia, that is a fresh water painted turtle in the picture above and perhaps that gives away the punchline.  The sanctuary received a call that a cold-stunned sea turtle had washed ashore at Corn Hill Beach in Truro.  Emily, the sanctuary’s turtle intern, sped to the scene and diligently searched and re-searched and searched again the beach area where the sea turtle had been reported.  She looked for a Kemp’s ridley or a loggerhead or a high pile of seaweed under which a turtle had been buried.  No luck.  Then, as frustration mounted, she spotted a small shell above the wrack line: a frozen painted turtle.  We have NO IDEA what a fresh water turtle was doing on a salt water beach with no ponds or lakes or streams or creeks within hollering range. 

Is it alive?  We don’t make snap judgments about our reptilian friends.  This painted turtle holds a privileged place in the wet lab triage center … just like the 60-pound loggerhead and the 6-pound Kemp’s ridley, waiting to tell us, in its own good time, whether or not it lies on this side of the live line.

Finally, the Turtle Journal team thanks Kerry & Russell and all supporters of the National Marine Life Center whose generous contributions have made a dream into a reality as the NMLC’s new marine animal hospital opens in Buzzards Bay next summer. 

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  2. [...] we last reported on sea turtle rescues in the Great White North, Turtle World Turned Upside Down, waves flash froze on frigid beaches and ocean water had transformed to icy slush within the [...]