The sea turtle stranding season on Cape Cod started a little late and slowly with only one live turtle being rescued each day of the Veterans Day long weekend.

But that trio of rewarmed and now feisty sea turtles at the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital in Quincy today are being joined by 10 more endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

The record cold weather has dropped the temperature of Cape Cod Bay to 52 degrees, which is the key threshold temperature that marks the beginning of the annual mass stranding of sea turtles on the Cape.

This event does not occur anywhere else in the world to this scale on a yearly basis. Hundreds of sea turtles are likely to strand over the next six weeks.

members of the turtle rescue team and a sea turtle

The rescued sea turtles have been collected off the frigid beaches by volunteers and staff of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. The turtles were transported to the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital in Quincy. There, the sea turtles, which have body temperatures in the high 40s, will be slowly rewarmed over several days. They will also be treated for other life-threatening medical conditions, such as pneumonia, severe dehydration and a variety of infections. These turtles are not only very cold but also very ill. Rehabilitation times for most turtles, before eventual release much further south, is usually several months.

a sea turtle that was stranded

These young sea turtles visit southern New England waters each summer to feed on crabs. Many of those turtles that get on the north side of Cape Cod are unable to figure out how to navigate out of Cape Cod Bay in the autumn. As water temperatures drop, they slowly become hypothermic and inactive. If they are lucky, they get washed ashore. The Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and two other species that also strand are either threatened or endangered due to the impacts of human activities. Rescuing, rehabilitating and eventually releasing these critically important marine animals has been a joint conservation effort of the Aquarium and Mass Audubon for more than 25 years. Over that time, the Aquarium has rehabbed and eventually arranged for the release of thousands of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, the world’s most endangered sea turtle species.

intake of a sea turtle

For a couple of decades, the first stranded turtles on average arrived in early November. With warmer water temperatures over the last several years, that date is often a week or two later. Sea turtles will continue to strand on Cape Cod until mid- to late December, depending on the weather. Before 2011, an average year yielded about 90 live sea turtles being rescued and treated. But over the last several years, that average has risen to more than 300 sea turtles.

Learn more about the sea turtle rescue program

Conservation Context

The world’s seven species of sea turtles have roamed the oceans for hundreds of millions of years. But today, most of these species are endangered and all are threatened due to unprecedented threats from humans, including fishing bycatch, entanglement, boat strike, poaching, loss of nesting habitat, pollution, oil spills, and climate change.