Sea turtles in our region do not typically come ashore unless they are seriously debilitated. During the warm summer months, animals of several turtle species travel north (riding the Gulf Stream), from the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, into New England waters and feed upon an abundant food supply in Cape Cod Bay. As winter approaches, however, this inviting environment becomes inhospitable to the turtles. As water temperatures drop in late autumn, the turtles' body temperatures fall below their tolerable limits. They then lose the ability to hunt for food, eventually becoming susceptible to dehydration and disease. Severely hypothermic or "cold-stunned" turtles drift helplessly with winds and currents, and many of them certainly die this way. Some of these animals are fortunate to drift ashore alive (often following the first cold front of the winter season) where they have a chance of being rescued.
During a typical winter we might expect several dozen live sea turtles to wash ashore on Cape Cod beaches. Each November, as the cold winds of winter begin to blow, volunteers from the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary comb the beaches of Cape Cod Bay in hopes of finding live sea turtles that can be rehabilitated. Once located, the turtles are examined, assessed, and rushed to our hospital at the New England Aquarium in Boston for further examination and care.
Please note that sea turtles have long paddle-shaped flippers (forelimbs). Turtles with short limbs and claws are not sea turtles and should be reported to local wildlife authorities.
The leatherback (Coriacea dermochelys) is another species of sea turtle that frequents New England waters in the warmer months of the year. Like other sea turtles, leatherbacks are closely associated with the tropical and sub-tropical waters, yet unlike other sea turtles, they are able to maintain a constant body temperature in colder waters, and are therefore not susceptible to cold-stunning. Most of our leatherback strandings involve animals that have been entangled in fishery gear.
All sea turtles species are considered either Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Please promptly report any sea turtles found ashore or entangled to our hotline, (617) 973-5247, or to the Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay (508) 349-2615.