Cape Cod’s sea turtle stranding season was relatively quiet until Tuesday, when a wave of 28 turtles washed ashore on beaches across the Cape’s outer arm, officials said. Now, biologists and volunteers are preparing to comb the frigid shoreline in the event that the animals continue to wash up over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Each year at the beginning of November, dozens of juvenile sea turtles become trapped in the arm of the Cape while trying to swim to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter. The turtles come to New England waters during the summer months to feed on crabs, according to Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium.
Unable to withstand the cold, the turtles begin to wash up on beaches in a lethargic state in November, some covered in up to two inches of stringy algae, he said.
“Some of them appear almost dead,” LaCasse said, explaining that the resilient reptiles can be warmed back to life, even if their heart beats as slow at one beat per minute.
Since the beginning of the stranding season, 47 hypothermic turtles have been rescued from the chilly Cape beaches by volunteers with the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
After a slow start to the stranding season brought in only 19 turtles in November, Tuesday was a surprising rush of the 28 animals in a single day, said LaCasse.
Just after noon on Wednesday, nine more turtles were taken to the sea turtle hospital in Quincy for treatment by aquarium biologists.
“We’re actually well prepared for it,” LaCasse said. “We get a lot of volunteers that help our biologists and our veterinarians.”
The turtles will be carefully warmed by five degrees each day until their body temperature is brought from 52 degrees to about 70 degrees, he said. The animals will also be treated for dehydration before they are released off the shores of North Carolina and Florida in the spring.
About 90 percent of the turtles the aquarium rehabs are the highly endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, according to LaCasse. Several others are juvenile green sea turtles, the same species as the aquarium’s 560-pound, 80-year-old Myrtle the turtle.
This year, the aquarium has saved about 10 green sea turtles, LaCasse said.
Unfortunately, he pointed out, there is no way to predict exactly how many turtles will wash ashore each year.
In the past, a typical year for the aquarium meant finding about 90 turtles. In 2014, however, the aquarium rehabilitated a record 733 turtles.
Volunteers with the wildlife sanctuary will continue to scour cape beaches throughout the winter, he said.
“It is nature, it’s hard to predict,” LaCasse said. “But we’re ready in case we get some big numbers, even over Thanksgiving.”