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

Record Onslaught of Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles
— 9 November 2002

The stranding season began only eight days ago and already 2002 is on the verge of becoming the 4th largest on record.  Forty-five cold-stunned sea turtles have beached on Cape Cod: 43 Kemp’s ridleys, a critically endangered species, and two green sea turtles.  We have never seen this many turtles, this early and this fast, since records began in 1979.

Of these 45 turtles, 31 were recovered alive from the beach by a small army of volunteers who patrol the shore after each storm-driven high tide.  On Thursday night/Friday morning, a crack team of rescuers scoured the shoreline from Eastham through Orleans and Brewster to Dennis, beginning at 2:30 in the morning.  As the gang of five, augmented by a reporter and photographer from the Cape Codder, rendezvoused in the parking lot of Friendly’s, an Orleans squad car pulled up to investigate.  It must have seemed exceedingly strange to find a group of folks bundled like polar explorers hanging out in the wee hours.  I suspect the officer may have dreamed for a moment of that big, career-making bust.  As a consolation prize, I invited him to join our snipe hunt, but he thought better of the idea.

That night we found six ridleys, which would not have survived until sunrise in the chilled night air.

As worrisome as the raw numbers themselves is that the size of these turtles remains smallish.  Most have been under 24 centimeters carapace length and less than 2 kilograms weight, which means that if the law of bell-shaped curves still applies at outer end of the turtle universe, then we have a long, long way to go before the stranding season ends.  Already rehab facilities at this neck of the woods are filling beyond capacity.

One particularly tiny ridley came shore this morning at Sesuit Harbor West in Dennis.  Only 20 centimeters long and 1.1 kilograms, she nevertheless proved quite perky.  After cleaning and processing, she was placed in “dry dock” on soft towels in the Sanctuary’s recovery room to await transport to the New England Aquarium in Boston.  Doors are kept open to allow room temperature to drop to within a few degrees of the turtles’ core temperature when they’re rescued from the beach.  A visitor walked to the front desk and alerted the receptionist that a strange turtle was “making an escape” down the driveway.  This ridley had found her way through a maze of patients, out the door, around the serpentine boardwalk, and was now heading for parts south.  Clearly, we weren’t moving fast enough to get her to a tropical clime.

You could read the impatience in her eyes once she was returned to her recovery room bedding.  Lucky for both her and us, an associate visiting from Mass Audubon headquarters in Lincoln volunteered to immediately chauffer this diva to Boston on the first leg of her journey back into the wild.