By Tim Jones
South Wellfleet, Mass. -A long walk on a deserted Cape Cod beach is a nice pastime. And in late November and early December while you walk you may also be able to help save an endangered species.
Most years, with the first real cold snap, endangered Kemp's Ridley, Green and Leatherback sea turtles wash up on the shores of Cape Cod Bay in significant numbers. When the water reaches 50 degrees, these sub-tropical creatures, which drifted north with the Gulf Stream in the summer, go into "cold shock." Still alive but comatose, they eventually wash up on bay beaches from Dennis to Truro, where they would freeze to death if humans didn't help.
A dedicated network of naturalists and volunteers from the Massachusetts Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in South Wellfleet, working with the New England Aquarium in Boston, rescues these stranded turtles, rehabilitates them, and releases them the following fall south of Cape Cod to continue their natural migration.
The search itself requires walking along the high tide line of a beach as soon as the water starts receding. Since most turtles strand in cold, windy weather and especially during strong storms at night, this sometimes requires more dedication than strolling on a sunny afternoon. Bring waterproof footwear, raingear, warm clothes and a bright headlamp or flashlight.
If you find a stranded sea turtle, do not put it back in the water or remove it from the beach. Move it above the high tide line (most turtles are small), cover it with seaweed to insulate it from the wind, mark its location with beach debris to make it easy to find. And call the Audubon Center at 508-349-2615. The phone is checked 24/7 during turtle stranding season.
Any turtle you find will be taken to a holding facility where it will be warmed slowly (5 degrees per day) until it is active. It will then be fed, rehabilitated and, eventually, released.
On Nov. 15 and 29, the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (www.wellfleetbay.org) hosts a two-hour "Sea Turtle 911" program ($10 per person) explaining why turtles strand and how they can be saved. Also sign up for naturalist-led walks and activities for kids.