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When some turtles swim south in the fall, scores of them get trapped by Cape Cod, where many die of hypothermia. (Herb Swanson)

Saving the World's Most Endangered Sea Turtle

Stranded on Cape Cod beaches, these Kemp's ridley turtles are getting a helping hand from volunteers and researchers

Cape Cod Bay churns as a frigid gust flicks froth into the air and the surf claws at the beach. I find a tangle of black seaweed on the sand, lift a handful of the wet mess and glimpse the lines of a shell. I grab more seaweed and uncover what I’ve been searching for: a Kemp’s ridley turtle, a member of the world’s most endangered species of sea turtle.

It’s a long way from the beach in Mexico where the turtles almost certainly hatched. It’s so still I doubt it’s alive. I pull off my gloves, lift the animal by its foot-wide shell and trot down the beach, holding it in front of me like a priceless porcelain vase. The turtle slowly raises its plum-size head and pops open its small eyes. One flipper flutters, then another. The turtle begins to paddle in the air, as if swimming. I sprint to my car.

Sea turtles already crowd the foyer when I arrive at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s nature center in Wellfleet. People hustle to put each animal on a clean towel in a cardboard box that once held bananas. Here and there a flipper waves, but most of the turtles are motionless. One exhales raspily. Volunteers plucked six turtles off beaches this morning and seven last night. Two are green turtles and the rest are Kemp’s ridleys. “I doubt there is a room in the world right now that has this,” says Dennis Murley, a naturalist at the center.

Each fall, typically by late October, Kemp’s ridleys and other sea turtles start washing up on the 50-mile-long shoreline along Cape Cod Bay between Sandy Neck and Provincetown. The turtles, almost all juveniles, are thought to follow warm summer currents north to Maine or beyond; then, as fall approaches, they head south before inadvertently swimming into the bay formed by the great crooked cape. As the water temperature drops, so does the coldblooded animal’s body temperature, until the turtle sinks into a deep torpor, too weak to find its way out of the bay. Turtles do occasionally wash up on other beaches along the East Coast, but only on Cape Cod are substantial numbers found every year.

About half of the turtles on the beach are already dead. The others, called cold-stunned turtles, will die of hypothermia if left on the sand, says Murley, because the air is even colder than the water.

He and Bob Prescott, the Audubon center’s director, weigh and measure the turtles. Some move frantically; the one I found, whose shell is coated with algae and has been given the number 93, starts doing the crawl stroke again. Prescott touches the motionless ones on the back of their heads or at the corner of their eyes, looking for a reaction that will tell him they’re alive. “Sometimes you can’t even tell from that,” Prescott says. The center keeps any turtle presumed dead for at least 24 hours. Over the years, Murley says, a few of these have revived. “Lazarus turtles,” he calls them.

Most Kemp’s ridley turtles nest along Mexico’s Gulf coast, but some nest in Texas. This is one of only two sea turtle species that lay eggs in mass nesting groups called arribadas. (The other species, the olive ridley, lives in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.) Some young Kemp’s ridleys are thought to swim from the Gulf of Mexico to the Sargasso Sea, in the middle of the Atlantic. As they mature, they paddle west toward shallower water along the coast of North America, where they can live for decades. The world’s smallest sea turtles, they grow about two feet long.

Vast numbers of Kemp’s ridleys once nested simultaneously; in 1947, a beachgoer filmed some 42,000 turtles on a beach in Mexico. Unfortunately for the species, people liked to eat the eggs, which were easy to harvest, and thought they acted as aphrodisiacs. By the 1960s, the turtle population had plummeted. Mexico outlawed the harvest in 1966, but poaching continued to take a toll. Meanwhile, increasingly scarce adults were often caught in fishing gear. In 1985, only 702 turtle nests were found, the lowest number on record. With new, turtle-excluding fishing nets and better protection of their nesting beaches, the species has begun to recover. An estimated 8,000 females nested last year.

Prescott says the population increase may explain why more Kemp’s ridley turtles have recently been found along Cape Cod. When he came across his first one, in 1974, he didn’t know what it was doing there. By the 1980s, maybe ten a year washed in, some of them still alive. Prescott and Murley organized a few people to comb the beaches in autumn and early winter. In 1999, they found a record 278, of which 219 were Kemp’s ridleys. Since then, the center has maintained a corps of about 100 volunteers, nearly all retirees.

“The easy part is finding them on the beach,” Prescott says. “The hard part is the medical treatment.”

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