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

A Blizzard of Sea Turtles — 16 December 2001

Hard, sustained northerly winds blasted Cape Cod this weekend, driving a blizzard of sea turtles onto the bay shoreline.  Twenty juvenile Kemp’s ridleys, the rarest and most endangered sea turtles in the world, were tossed on beaches from Barnstable to Eastham within the last 24 hours.  With temperatures stuck in the 30s and 40s, and near-shore water pegging only 39 degrees, turtles were reaching the beach with internal body temperatures registering from upper 30s to the low 40s.  They ranged in size from a mere 1200 grams and 8.25 inches to 7.7 kilograms and 15.5 inches.  The latter turtle, one of the largest Kemp’s ridleys ever recovered on Cape Cod, began this tsunami of stranded sea turtles early last evening.

With winds howling and such a beautiful exemplar in hand, we decided to hit the shore several hours before dawn to rescue any critters that might become stranded on the post-midnight high.  Bob Prescott and I leap-frogged Brewster beaches from Linnell Landing to Paine Creek and recovered four cold-stunned ridleys before sunrise.

The numbers climbed all day as we ping-ponged between Brewster and Dennis with an occasional outlying turtle or two.  We dispatched a mid-morning van of ridleys to Boston and recruited interns to help process the incoming turtles.  But they just kept coming.  As the last live turtle was rescued from Mayflower Beach at sunset, the 24-hour total reached 20 rare Kemp’s ridleys.  An extraordinary day exceeded only by the record stranding event of 1999.

And like that 1999 season, the triage room at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary became awash in turtles — cleaned and dressed and “dry-docked” as their temperatures are gradually raised, waiting for an early morning transfer to the New England Aquarium in Boston for more intensive treatment.  As of this evening, the 2001 summary stands at 72 sea turtles: 68 Kemp’s ridleys, 2 loggerheads and 2 greens.  And tonight at 0200 hours, under crisp clear skies and brisk northerly gusts, we resume the hunt.