Cape Cod Bay Sea Turtle Rescue

There are sea turtles in peril right here in Massachusetts. If you are planning to be on the Cape during the 'off season', especially anytime from late October through December, you can help save a sea turtle. No specialized skills are needed, just your time and some effort (a warm jacket and apparel is also a good idea). Yes, it is a cold day on the beach and you will go home tired, but the fulfillment you will experience in helping such a wonderful endangered animal is priceless.

The Problem

After a sea turtle hatches, on beaches from the Carolinas to Mexico, they swim out to sea to join the Sargasso loop current. This current is warm and teeming with life. The young turtles spend the early years of their lives here, floating amid the seaweed, eating crustaceans and a plethora of sea life on these floating mats. During their adolescent years, the turtles come shoreward and sweep up the eastern seaboard with the Gulf Stream Current. Up around Cape Cod, its bay, inlets and countless sheltered harbors, sea turtles find rich feeding grounds and hospitable waters throughout the summer.

North Atlantic Ocean Currents

As summer becomes fall and the temperatures start dropping, tropical creatures like these sea turtles must start south and here in lies the problem. It comes down to basic geography. Cape Cod, with its hook of land jutting into the Atlantic becomes a barrier to turtles trying to head south. Being reptiles, sea turtles cannot make their own body heat. They are at the mercy of the temperatures of the bay. Things like digestion, muscle control, and stamina are all affected, as it gets colder. The sea turtle becomes disoriented and confused when the temperatures fall beneath 60°F. This state is known as COLD STUNNED. Once stunned, the sea turtles are at the mercy of the wind, waves, and tide.

Stranded Sea Turtles

Cold stunned sea turtles float with the prevailing wind and waves, being washed towards shore. When the tide comes in, cold stunned sea turtles wash upon the beaches of Cape Cod. Once out of the water, the cold winter air temperatures can quickly finish off a sea turtle. The clock really starts ticking once they leave the water and are exposed to the freezing air temperatures of winter.

Sea Turtle Rescue


This is where the Wellfleet Bay Audubon comes in (and of course, you and I and other volunteers). Bob Prescott, Director of the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary, has been patrolling the beaches of Cape Cod Bay and rescuing sea turtles since the 1970s, calling people's attention to this phenomenon and organizing the Sea Turtle Rescue every year.

"Every sea turtle counts, when you consider that all species of sea turtle are endangered. Every time I talk to others about the Sea Turtle Rescue efforts on the Cape, I am typically confronted with surprise. When you say sea turtle, most think Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands, not Massachusetts. The need is real and it is local, these turtles washing ashore have 0% survival chances, if not helped."

*Click the image to read about the first stranded sea turtle rescue of 2010!

Volunteers Needed

There are two primary jobs for Sea Turtle Rescue volunteers. First, they need beach patrollers. Anyone can do this! We encourage all our members to volunteer for beach patrol. If you live close to the Cape, or you are planning to be there, please get in touch with the volunteer coordinator Diane Silverstein or call 508-349-2615. Though you can walk any beach you wish, there is science and practical experience involved in predicting where the strandings are going to happen. It helps the cause the most to allow the rescue coordinators to spread out the patrols to most effectively cover the areas in most need.

The strandings occur after the high tide is starting to turn. This means that twice a day there is opportunities to rescue sea turtles. CAUTION: Neither the TRL nor Wellfleet subscribe to inexperienced volunteers patrolling during the nighttime high tide.

Wellfleet also needs volunteers for getting cold stunned turtles from the Wellfleet Sanctuary to the Marine Animal Rescue Center in Quincy, MA. There are a few important things to know about this job. First, these are cold stunned sea turtles, which need to be warmed up slowly over days and days to safely recover. If a sea turtle warms up too fast, it can suffer organ failure and death. So what does this mean for our volunteers? It means NO HEAT inside a vehicle transporting sea turtles to the MAR center, an hour and a half drive.

If a turtle comes into the rescue center more than a few degrees warmer than their stranding temperature, you will not be allowed to make this trip again (not to mention the peril that the sea turtle is now in.)

This is a serious job; you will be transporting endangered animals in peril. You will have paper work to deliver, with the turtles as well. Sea turtles need to get to Quincy promptly, but most of all safely. Please contact the Turtle Rescue League or call the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary with the day you plan on being their and inquire about whether there are turtles needing transport.

Equipment for Patrol

mtbp.gifWarm Clothing: A good jacket, gloves, warm socks, and a hat are all basic essentials. If you cannot stay warm, you will not be able to patrol much distance.

mtbp.gifComfortable Footwear: You will be walking for miles on a beach, wear sensible shoes. The sand might be harder and easier to walk on nearest the water line, but nothing gets you colder quicker than wet feet!

mtbp.gifCellular Phone: Here is a great chance to put your shiny technology to great use, if your phone has GPS, great! When you call in the sea turtle, you can give GPS coordinates. Failing this, most car GPS systems have a walking mode, and you can use them as well. Minimally make sure you have Wellfleet's phone number programmed into your phone before stepping on the beach.

mtbp.gifExtras: There is a few more things to take, which will make your patrol go better. Hand warmers/heat pack, are great for keeping your hands warm on cold patrols. A thermos with some coffee or hot cocoa is awfully nice when the wind is blowing hard.


On Sea Turtle Patrol

When you are on patrol, keep your eyes on the water line. As the tide is cresting, you are going to see the stranded turtle in the surf. If you see a Sea Turtle, here is what you do:

1. Move the turtle above the high tide line, DO NOT PUT IT BACK INTO THE WATER or REMOVE IT FROM THE BEACH
2. Cover it with seaweed or eelgrass so it is no longer exposed to cold wind
3. Mark the spot with a piece of beach debris (lobster buoy or driftwood)
4. Call Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary Sea Turtle Hot Line at 508-349-2615 ext. 104 and leave exact location (GPS coordinates if possible) as well as distinguishable landmarks; a rescue crew will be promptly dispatched to the location.