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Don Lewis, Massachusetts Audubon Society,
Fox Island Wildlife Management Area

In Search of Sea Turtles — 31 October 2001

A pleasant morning in the low to mid-40s, accompanied by a wispy southwest breeze, spurred an expedition into Cape Cod Bay in search of sea turtles.  The two-seater Cessna flew from Provincetown Airport at 09:45 while the boat launched from Rock Harbor in Orleans, both cutting transects across the triangle between Billingsgate Shoal off the tip of Great Island, Crosby Beach in East Brewster and Sesuit Harbor in Dennis.

Sea turtles get caught by the natural seine of Cape Cod’s flexed arm and are trapped by falling ocean temperatures.  Once the warmer bay water drops below 50°F, sea turtles become “cold stunned” and are washed onto beaches by storm-driven tides.  If they aren’t rescued before prolonged exposure to freezing winds, they succumb quickly to hypothermia.  This year while temperatures in the bay hover in the mid-50s — above the cold-stunning threshold but still awfully uncomfortable for a sea turtle — we hope to find where they’re hanging out and perhaps rescue a few before they become stressed by the cold.

There were no turtles sighted in today’s perfect conditions, but that didn’t eliminate all sense of adventure and discovery.  Midway from Orleans to Dennis, the plane swooped overhead.  “Turtle plane to turtle boat. You’re being shadowed by a very big fish,” called John the pilot.  Off the bow we spotted a large dorsal fin cutting through the water at a leisurely pace.

We instantly identified it as a basking shark and chugged forward for a closer look.  About 15 feet long, this specimen was a pure beauty as it cruised through the water.  The pilot and spotter counted eight basking sharks in this small section of the bay during their two-hour flight, but this one was the largest of the group.  Topping off an exciting flight, the plane passed over two humpback whales breaching off Truro during its return flight to Provincetown.

The boat trip back to shore proved equally eventful.  As we passed through the tidal sluice between Great Island and submerged Billingsgate Island, we came across about 50 gray and harbor seals basking on a rising sandbar island at the tip of Jeremy Point.  So, there were mammals and fish and fowl aplenty, but not a single turtle to be seen.