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

Perhaps They Knew — 2 December 2001

The Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary sponsored two weekends of sea turtle open houses beginning Saturday 24 November.  And, perversely, not a single turtle appeared on Cape Cod beaches for the entire ten-day stretch from opening door until closing at 2:30 p.m. today, 2 December.  The last sea turtle had stranded on Thanksgiving morning — at 106-pound subadult loggerhead.  It departed for the New England Aquarium in Boston the next morning with a Kemp’s ridley companion, leaving the Sanctuary turtleless for the entire span of the sea turtle awareness event.

Mild fall temperatures beset the Northeast, hitting records highs and bringing winds that blew the full gamut from dead calm to still.  On occasion, a breeze would stir for a few hours, then spin the compass with no sustained winds for nearly two weeks.  Therefore, no energy to push lethargic turtles shoreward.  Bay water temperatures rose from 37.4 degrees on 21 November to 50 degrees this morning.  So, it could have been the weather that kept the turtles at bay (pun intended) . . . or perhaps they heard about the open house and wanted to avoid the crowds.  They are, after all, an elusive, one might say reclusive, animal.

Despite the lack of live critters to grace the event, the Sanctuary’s sea turtle celebration proved a hit.  Events included crafts and games for youngsters to learn about sea turtles, including a full-size Naugahyde leatherback, which opened with anatomically correct cloth insides.  Exhibits told the story of strandings and rescues.  Adult lectures highlighted sea turtle natural history and stranding protocols, while kids programs used games to teach them how to advance sea turtle conservation and how to handle cold-stunned turtles found on the beach.

I drew the short straw and led beach walks at each high tide in search of (“ISO”) sea turtles.  With balmy temperatures in the 60s and flat calm seas, we came back with nice tans, but not a single turtle.

Yet, thirty minutes after the last visitor departed the last lecture on the last day of the open house this afternoon, a call came in from the Cape Cod National Sea Shore.  Park Service rangers patrolling the Great Island peninsula had recovered a live sea turtle — at the very spot where the day before I had led our ISO walk (see photo above).  Bob Prescott (right) accepted this lively critter — as active as any Kemp’s ridley we have seen this entire year.

By the time we got it inside the triage room, the next call rang.  A resident in Truro had rescued another Kemp’s ridley at Corn Hill beach.  This one was flipped on its back and buried in the sand.  As Bob raced north to pick up this new turtle, I processed the Park Service find.

The first ridley weighed in at 2.6 kilograms with a carapace length just over 10 inches.  The second one could have been a twin, nearly the same linear dimensions, but weighing only 2.1 kilograms.  Both turtles had an internal body temperature of 53.6 degrees Fahrenheit — quite warm for a 2nd-of-December sea turtle in Cape Cod Bay.  They’re resting comfortably in the Sanctuary’s recovery room tonight and will make the trek to the aquarium tomorrow morning.

The measurements for these turtles fall right on the expected graph for strandings, as if the ten-day interlude had not occurred.  Whether this means that this year’s cold-stunning event will pickup again after a brief, unexpected summer reprise, and we will begin to see larger and larger turtles strand as temperatures plunge once more, we’ll find out shortly.  The other possibility is that this warm interlude allowed some of the more massive turtles to escape southward and avoid stranding.  Time will tell.

Current numbers for 2001 (as of 3 December): A total of 35 stranded sea turtles since 7 November. 32 Kemp’s ridleys, 2 loggerheads, 1 green turtle.