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

Three on the Morning Tide — 12 November 2001

November 12th broke cold and windy on a morning high tide — perfect conditions to rescue cold-stunned sea turtles along the beaches of Cape Cod.  The night before we scoured the shoreline for stranded turtles, but found nothing.  So, Monday’s search began with a clean slate.  By mid-morning, though, the temporary triage wing of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary began to fill.  Three Kemp’s ridley — the rarest sea turtle in the world — were “dry-docked,” awaiting transport to the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Bob Prescott, executive director of the Sanctuary, discovered the first turtle himself on Skaket Beach in Orleans.  That same spot had been searched at 10 p.m. last night and again at 6 a.m. this morning, so this critter had just beached on the rising tide.  Nine inches long and weighing 1.8 kilograms, it represents the typical sea turtle we expect to find at the beginning of a stranding event.  It’s internal body temperature registered 51 degrees.

Volunteer Pat Engstrom rescued the next Ridley from Kingsbury Beach in Eastham, a few miles north of the first turtle.  Both had measurements so close they could have been twins.  The second was the identical length and weighed 1.7 kilograms, but looks like it hit a cold pocket before stranding, because the internal body temperature registered only 46.4° Fahrenheit.

Ten-year-old Abigail Hines-Houston, who also volunteers for our terrapin project in the summer, found the third ridley on Linnell Beach in Brewster, west of the other two turtles.  The tiniest one of the season, it was even smaller than our homegrown terrapins, stretching only 8 inches long and weighing 1100 grams.  With so little body mass, its internal temperature had plunged to under 45 degrees.

Abigail’s rescue went perfectly by the book.  She found the turtle on the high water line, moved it well above the next flood tide, covered it with seaweed to protect the Ridley from wind and cold, marked the spot with bright colored flotsam, and immediately called the Sanctuary to recover the animal.

Back in the lab, we examined each animal.  The first two were responsive and as active as one expects a cold-stunned turtle.  The third was into deep torpor.  After an initial assessment, they were placed on blankets and pads to begin the slow process of re-warming.

As winds continue to blow from the northwest dropping wind-chills into the Arctic range, we’ve arranged nighttime patrols of the shoreline in the southeast corner of the bay from Brewster to Eastham.  High tide comes at 9:00 p.m. and if we can reach these turtles before they succumb to exposure, they have a better than even chance of survival.