Previous Page Photo-Diary of a Terrapin Researcher Next Page

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

Teamwork Saves Entangled Leatherback Off Barnstable Harbor — 03 August 2002

When an approximately 900-pound female leatherback was found entangled in lobster gear a few miles off the entrance to Barnstable Harbor this afternoon, quick action and eager cooperation ensured a successful outcome.  And after a week of depressing results with the pilot whale strandings, we were overdue for a happy ending.

A fisherman and his family were enjoying this sultry weekend out on the bay where a sweet southerly breeze brought welcome relief from the near 90-degree heat.  As they slalomed through a minefield of lobster pots off Sandwich and Barnstable, they spotted an unusual grouping of three buoys and a fourth one being dragged in a circle.  Then they saw the behemoth leatherback sea turtle struggling to tow a set of traps and buoys that had become entangled around her left flipper and neck.

Over the years we’ve received a number of reports of entangled sea turtles.  But, sadly, most folks merely call it in via VHF radio with an approximate position and go on about their weekend activity.  The chance of finding the critter, even a huge leatherback, in such a clutter of buoys and pots is near zero.  And many a rescue mission ends with the futility of knowing an endangered animal is somewhere nearby that cannot be located, even after exhaustive search transects.  But this time the outcome proved very different, because the fisherman generously gave up his afternoon plans and baby-sat the entangled turtle until we arrived on the scene.  I suspect there may have been a little enlightened self-interest in this sacrifice, because his young kids got a rare opportunity to get a up-close and personal look at a powerful leatherback.  And, his decision to stay with the turtle made all the difference in the world.

He used his cell phone to call the New England Aquarium with the report.  The aquarium called Bob Prescott, the director of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and coordinator for sea turtle rescuers on the Cape.  Bob contacted National Marine Fisheries, the lead federal agency for endangered sea turtles.  NMFS reached the folks at Coast Guard Station Cape Cod Canal, who agreed to taxi Bob Prescott and me to the site off Barnstable Harbor.  Bob got back in touch with the fisherman, who had been joined in his vigil by a Boston Whaler from the Barnstable Harbormaster.  They agreed to keep the turtle under observation while we drove the 50 or so miles to Sandwich to catch the Coast Guard boat to reach the leatherback.  In weekend traffic on the Cape, that meant a wait of 90 minutes to two hours.  When we reached Coast Guard Station Cape Cod Canal, the duty officer had a boat and crew ready.  We donned safety gear and shoved off, racing at a respectable clip.  These men and women are real pros and got us to the entangled turtle in record time.

One buoy and line had wrapped several times around her left front flipper and once around her neck, too.  The other three buoy and trap sets had been snagged by the first buoy line, so she was awfully fatigued by dragging such a load.  We transferred from the Coast Guard boat to the harbormaster’s Boston Whaler, because it offered a lower platform from which to free the animal.  On our first pass, Bob — lying prone across the bow of the whaler — was able to unwrap the buoy from around her neck, but he didn’t have time to free her completely.  Still, with just a little more freedom of action, she dove deep and swam gracefully (see first image above), until she reached the end of the tether and the drag of the four lobster sets cut in.

After a few minutes she began to tire again, allowing us to make another approach.  This time Bob had his sharp knife ready.  There was just enough slack to cut through the remaining lines and remove all the entangled gear.  As soon as she was free, she dove and swam at full pace out into the deeper regions of Cape Cod Bay.  There were no injuries or abrasions, so her prognosis is excellent.