Cold stunned turtles usually wash ashore on the outer Cape from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Their numbers are higher than usual this year, almost 800 so far, which makes this the second busiest season ever for turtle rescuers at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Hayley Fager spent a day with the volunteers and researchers saving these tropical animals from a New England winter.

Strong west winds were pushing turtles ashore from Brewster to Truro all morning. Volunteers scanned the beaches for the animals, and Bob Nolan and his wife found two.

I met them on the beach with Maureen Duffy, turtle research coordinator at the sanctuary. They had put the turtles in the back of their car.

One turtle moved its flippers, so Maureen set it aside. She inspected the smaller turtle but she couldn’t find any signs of life.

Most of the turtles, including these, are Kemp's Ridleys, a critically endangered species.

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A loggerhead turtle prepared for a ride to the New England Aquarium.
Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

The turtles come to the Cape naturally to feed, but they get trapped in the bay by the hook shape of the Cape.

Duffy said, when the temperatures drop, they get too cold to swim South.

“If this were any other spot, any other shape, they would successfully get back down,” she said.

And because ocean waters are getting warmer, the turtles are coming in greater numbers and staying longer.

“So that’s where the human impact comes in,” she said, “So it’s a little bit of both. It’s geography and human intervention.”

We took the turtles from this parking lot in Wellfleet on a 15-minute drive back to the sanctuary.

When we got there, we entered a room full of researchers weighing and scanning turtles. It was around 55 degrees, to keep the animals stable, and it was really quiet. The researchers were whispering because the animals are in shock, and it’s important to be as gentle as possible.

Duffy set the two turtles on the table and started measuring their shell dimensions.

The smaller turtle she thought was dead, was actually alive. That means both of these turtles were going to the Aquarium in Quincy to start recovery. There was quiet excitement in the cold room, and after just a few minutes, the turtles were lifted into a new car.

Another pair of volunteers, Sandy McKeen and her husband, drove the turtles to the aquarium.

They need to keep the car 55 degrees, so they turn off the heat and sometimes even open the windows.

“And we just whisper. We don’t play any Christmas music, though I’d be tempted,” McKeen said.

Like many volunteers, they are a retired couple who want to do something meaningful with newfound free time.

“It’s not their fault they get stuck here," McKeen said. "They get stuck because there’s no current just a tide. And it’s unnatural to go north to go south. So they get stuck and you feel bad that this happens to them.”

Maureen Duffy says, without help from volunteers and researchers, all of these turtles would die on beaches.

“So we have a really big impact,” she said, “We are 100 percent saving that life if we can get to it in time.”

Eventually some of these turtles could be flown to Florida for release, and some will be released right here in Dennis, on the South side, toward the ocean.

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Two loggerhead turtles prepared for a ride to the New England Aquarium.
Hayley Fager