|Michele with a 50 lb juvenile loggerhead sea turtle that she had just carried off the beach. It survived and was later released. The larger, 275 lb female, did not survive.|
It takes a village — a very big village — to save the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle from extinction. That’s one of the messages in “Saving Sea Turtles: Preventing Extinction,” a new feature-length documentary by filmmakers Michele Gomes and Jenny Ting of Seattle-based Interchange Media.
The film chronicles the 2014 sea turtle stranding season, which saw a record 1,242 turtles strand on the beaches of Cape Cod, and the combined efforts of conservationists, biologists, volunteers, members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, politicians and the Coast Guard to save the endangered animals.
“That season was huge. Nothing ever came close to that,” Bob Prescott, director of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, told the Banner. “To put it in perspective, the previous record was 412 turtles.”
Prescott, who began the Cape Cod sea turtle rescue program 30 years ago, is featured in the film along with members of the sea turtle rescue community in Quincy, Texas, Florida, Georgia and Mexico.
“Saving Sea Turtles” focuses on the Kemp’s ridley, the smallest and most endangered sea turtle species in the world. Juveniles range from 12 to 15 inches and weigh between five and 10 lbs., while adults are between two and three feet and can reach 100 pounds, according to flyers at the Wellfleet sanctuary. They feed on crabs, jellyfish and fish and mate in Mexico and Texas.
Kemp’s ridley’s biggest threats along the east coasts of Mexico and the United States are habitat loss, becoming entangled in fishing gear, and oil spills.
According to the film, prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, there was a 12 to 15 percent increase in Kemp’s ridley nesting each year because of conservation efforts. Turtle recovery had researchers thinking that the Kemp’s ridley would be removed from the endangered species list. But after the oil spill, their numbers nosedived back to critical levels.
“It will take years to sort out all of the ramifications of what happened to the Gulf of Mexico environment and [the turtles] in the gulf,” Dr. Patrick Burchfield says in the film. He directs the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, another member of the sea turtle conservation village and leader of the Bi-National Turtle Conservation Project.
Almost all Kemp’s ridley females return to Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas or Padre Island, Texas, where they lay their eggs. The hatchlings enter the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, then “they follow the warm water up to the Gulf of Maine, the fastest warming body of water on earth, and work their way down the coast,” said Prescott. “Once they get into Cape Cod Bay they can’t find their way out. It’s a trap. When water temperatures hit 50 degrees that’s when we see the turtles wash onto shore.”
It was during a visit to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in 2013 that the filmmakers first heard about the sea turtles stranding.
“We thought we’d walk around and see some birds but instead [the guide] talked about sea turtles stranding,” Gomes said. “That really piqued our interest because I grew up in Rhode Island and went to Wellfleet bay beaches often in my teens and never heard about sea turtles in New England waters. And to find out that the rarest of the rare turtles were stranding there: that was it. We knew we had to make this film.”
As Gomes and Ting prepared to make their documentary, they happened to run into a friend in Seattle who was connected to the Kemp’s ridley conservation project in Mexico.
“Our friend was working with Papa Tortuga [director of the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project] down in Mexico who coincidentally started a sea turtle conservation project in his area the same year Bob Prescott started his project in Wellfleet,” Gomes said. “Papa Tortuga started a cultural revolution in his town in Mexico. Instead of eating these turtles, the people were invested in saving them.”
“We thought we’d be doing a movie about sea turtles on Cape Cod, and then we started following the turtles all the way to Mexico and Texas and then to Georgia and Florida, where the stranded turtles are released,” Ting added.
In 2014 the filmmakers rented a place in Truro and stayed for five weeks so, Ting said, they wouldn’t miss a beat of the stranding season. They had no idea that they were going to film the record-breaking stranding season.
“On our first trip out on Cold Storage Beach in Truro, the beach was literally littered with turtles,” Gomes said. “Jenny walked towards Provincetown and I walked the other way and within minutes we were both heading back carrying three turtles each.”
“That’s when I first realized why the volunteers in the rescue effort had such urgency in their voices. They were going out in 20-mile-per-hour winds and saying, ‘Come on, we have to go.’ They didn’t have time to wait around for us to get ready,” said Ting. “Then you’re out there holding a turtle and its life is in your hands and you get it.”
The 2014 season caught everyone off guard.
“It was hard to film at times because you just want to put the camera down and help,” said Ting.
And they did.
“Michele and Jenny were fantastic,” said Krill Carson, a turtle rescue volunteer and founder of the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance. “They would throw down their cameras and help carry turtles, do whatever needed to be done. They were passionate about the turtles. We didn’t know when we were in it how huge the season was. There were so many turtles coming down the pipeline into the sanctuary, you just put your head down and kept going. Quincy, where all turtles have to go, was so backed up the sanctuary was turned into a triage. We had so many volunteers out there. Families, retired people, professionals, young, old, everyone just coming together and doing what was needed. It was like a MASH unit.”
Barry and Donna Tompkins, two volunteers assigned to patrol Rock Harbor Beach in Eastham, were on-call day and night during the 2014 season.
“When the winds were northwest and the water temperature was 50 degrees or below, we walked the beach at every high tide whether it was at three in the morning or 10 at night,” said Donna Tompkins. “There hasn’t been a season like 2014, before or since.”
“Cape Cod is ground zero for the Kemp’s ridley turtles,” Gomes said. “If it wasn’t for what they were doing, all those volunteers out walking the beaches in all weather and at all times of the day and night, those turtles would just die and the species would have less of a chance of surviving.”
[Article by By Bari Hassman / Banner Correspondent. Source: Wicked Local Cape Cod.]
- Great informative article about the filming of Saving Sea Turtles: Preventing Extinction HERE.
- The official website for the movie is here: https://www.savingseaturtlesmovie.com/