WELLFLEET — Russell and Kerry Barton of Concord, N.H., count themselves lucky to have been part of an effort to save at least 30 cold-stunned sea turtles on Cape Cod beaches over the weekend.
"It was an amazing experience," Kerry Barton said yesterday about finding a 60-pound loggerhead Sunday morning at Point of Rocks Beach on Cape Cod Bay in Brewster. Barton was on a patrol with Don Lewis, a volunteer with the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
The New Hampshire couple, who won the opportunity to go on patrol with Lewis during a silent auction earlier this year, were among dozens of volunteers who found turtles on Cape beaches over the weekend.
The stranding season, which lasts from shortly before Halloween until mid-December, is in full swing, Dennis Murley, teacher and naturalist at the sanctuary, said as he checked for life in some of the turtles yesterday.
The cold-blooded reptiles were hit hard by a cold snap over the weekend, Murley said. There have been 42 stranded sea turtles reported on the Cape so far this season, he said.
The turtles that survive will be rehabilitated at the New England Aquarium in Boston before being transferred to other rehab facilities and eventually reintroduced into the ocean.
"Hopefully this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip" for the turtles, Murley said.
Last year, 39 turtles were reported stranded on the Cape. The most reported in a single year came in 1999, when almost 300 turtles washed up on area beaches.
This weekend a rapid drop in air temperatures, combined with offshore waters in the upper 40s, made for an unusual mix that stunned a large number of different types of turtles that would not normally have stranded at the same time, Murley said.
As temperatures fall and the animals' heart rate and body temperature drops, they become immobile. Floating on the surface to breathe, they are at the mercy of winds that blow them to shore. Once on shore, they can freeze to death.Video: Stunned turtles packed for transport in Wellfleet
Those that survive until they can be driven to rehab in Boston have an 80 to 90 percent chance of continued survival, Murley said.
At the sanctuary yesterday, Murley and field assistant Emily Goczalk placed three live Kemp's ridley turtles in banana boxes donated by Super Stop & Shop in Orleans for the ride to Boston. In another box, four not-so-lucky dead turtles were being shipped so that researchers could perform necropsies on the foot-long animals.
Usually between 10 and 20 percent of the turtles that arrive at the New England Aquarium are dead, aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said. This year that ratio has jumped to more than 60 percent, he said.
All of the turtles sent to the aquarium come from the Cape, he said.
The turtles at the sanctuary yesterday were juveniles, Goczalk said. "At this age they're just going where the Gulf Stream takes them," she said.
Most Kemp's ridley turtles — 95 percent — are born on a single beach in Mexico, Goczalk said. They are the most critically endangered sea turtle, although all seven species of sea turtle are on the federal endangered species list, she said. Kemp's ridleys also make up the majority of sea turtles that strand on Cape beaches.
While the other turtles were sent to Boston, the loggerhead turtle found by the Bartons was kept in Wellfleet until sanctuary officials could determine if it was alive or dead, not always an easy task with turtles.
"We've hit some — I call Lazarus turtles — that pop back to life the last couple of days," he said.
What to do if you spot a stranded sea turtle
- Move the turtle above the high-tide line
- Cover it with dry seaweed or eelgrass to protect the animal from wind
- Mark the spot with beach debris, such as a lobster buoy
- Call the Cape Cod Sea Turtle Stranding Network at 508-349-2615
- If possible, note time, tide, wind direction and speed, and water temperature
Source: Massachusetts Audubon Society Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary