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Turtle Trouble

Emily Vigneau, Author

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When all the tourists return home and the locals retreat indoors, the Cape Cod beaches become quiet in the offseason.

Starting late October until Christmas, hundreds of sea turtles are stranded in Cape Cod waters. They hatch down in Mexico, then follow the warm Sargasso loop current up north. In the summer, Cape Cod Bay is the perfect temperature to support growing turtles, and is full of food. Juvenile turtles end up staying in this “false paradise” well into the late summer and fall.

As temperatures drop, sea turtles begin to swim for home. However, because of the shape of Cape Cod, they are bound by the arm and stuck in the bay. Fall sets in, and the reptiles become cold-stunned, where their digestion, muscle control, and stamina all weaken. When the water falls below 60 degrees, they become disoriented and are at the mercy of the tide. Eventually, these dying turtles wash up on bayside beaches and require rescuing to survive.

“The point is to keep the species alive,” said Cristy Barrett, an Aquarium biologist. “When you lose that many turtles, you lose a lot of genetic diversity. It’s really important to save every single life that we can.”

This is where the Wellfleet Audubon comes in. They have teams of volunteers who comb the shoreline looking for stranded sea turtles that can be retrieved and rehabilitated. However, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce reports there are 559.6 miles of beaches, and it’s difficult to patrol all of them regularly. The only way to predict the location of injured turtles is by studying the ocean currents and targeting specific beaches.

Yet, as Audubon sanctuary director Bob Prescott says, “We know wind direction plays a big role in where they wash up, but we don’t know much about the currents in Cape Cod Bay. What’s known is mostly anecdotal.” Nauset students are stepping in to help, by building GPS tagged “drifters” that are released into the bay and track the currents. Last year these devices helped volunteers find over 1,250 cold-stunned sea turtles, a number that is expected to increase further in 2015.

A group of students preparing to release a "drifter"

A group of students preparing to release a “drifter”

Jessica MacManus, a volunteer at the Wellfleet Audubon came to talk to Mr.Simpson’s saltwater ecosystems classes, where she taught students about the endangered turtles and conservation efforts. After assembling the cloth and aluminum “drifters,” students sailed out of Sesuit harbor and released them into the ocean, expecting to track their movement in the coming weeks.

Juniors Lexi and Emily construct "drifters" in science class

Juniors Lexi and Emily construct “drifters” in science class

Luke Simpson, the science teacher at Nauset overseeing the project, comments, “It’s a great opportunity for students to learn about marine life and ocean currents, as well as saving sea turtles as a bonus.”

The first stranded turtle of the season has already been found in Barnstable, and many more are expected within the coming months. If you’re interested in helping, visiting the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is a good place to start. Donations are always welcome to support the program, and a list of needed supplies is available on the website. If you find a cold-stunned turtle on the beach make sure to call 508-349-2615 ext 104, so it can be rescued.

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Turtle Trouble