What You Need To Know About The Sea Turtles of Cape Cod

What You Need To Know About The Sea Turtles of Cape Cod

If you’ve kept up with Pixar films, you’re likely familiar with the surfer-dude sea turtle in Finding Nemo.

But many do not realize that the depiction of sea turtles in that film isn’t entirely far from the truth.

Sea turtles spend the first few years of their existence following the Gulf Stream up and down expanses of the ocean. When they’re old enough to reproduce, they’re able to use the Earth’s magnetization to triangulate back to their original place of birth.

These turtles are graceful, well-travelled, and live a long time – traits which many humans pine for. But many of them are also in grave danger, with ocean pollution an increasingly present problem.

The first step to helping them, however, is to know more about them.

Types of Sea Turtles found Near and on Cape Cod

Kemp’s Ridley (critically endangered) – These are the most endangered sea turtle in the world, but probably the one you’re most likely to find around Cape Cod. Like all sea turtles in this hemisphere, Kemp’s only spend the summer in the northeast before turning to more southern waters for the winter. Adults grow up to 100 pounds, but at 24 to 28 inches, these are still the smallest sea turtles.

Loggerhead (endangered) – Loggerheads are almost as common in Cape Cod waters as Kemp’s, but grow much larger. At 3 feet long and weighing in at 250 pounds, it is easy to see how these creatures can tangle so easily in fishing gear. This species also has a much wider geographical range than Kemp’s, too, and can be found in almost every major ocean.

Green sea turtle (endangered) – Greens are even larger, at 300 to 350 pounds. They aren’t as common here on Cape Cod, but can be found with a trained eye. While the above species are more omnivorous, Greens take a cue from their name and feast primarily on seagrasses and algae.

Leatherback – Not only is the Leatherback the largest turtle species, it’s also the heaviest reptile in the world, with an average weight of around 1,700 pounds. Unlike all other sea turtles, Leatherbacks do not cold stun if they are in colder waters, since they are capable of regulating their internal body temperature.

Hawksbill (critically endangered) – The least common sea turtle found near Cape Cod, Hawksbills have only been found cold stunned on area beaches two times on record.

Interesting Facts

You wouldn’t expect reptiles to have much of a personality, but according to the Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, an establishment which works to rescue all kinds of marine life, there is great variance between individual turtles, even in the same species.

Caretakers at the center have reported smaller individuals bullying up on larger ones, much like a Napoleonic complex in humans! Others are fussy eaters, preferring squid over fish. The sassiest individuals are able to pick up on which humans are bringing snacks as opposed to medicinal shots: they’ll hide in the corner of their care tanks if it is the latter.

Sea turtles are some of the longest-lived and farthest-travelled creatures on earth. Most species are found across the globe, as they’re migration patterns take them on journeys throughout the supercurrents. These creatures have inhabited earth for over 100 million years – even though dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago.

Some individuals can reach depths of nearly 4,000 feet to capture prey, if they’re desperate enough.

Hatchling turtles may take up to 10 years to grow into juveniles, and may not fully development until at least 20 years old. Once hatched, the turtles spend many years swimming and foraging the supercurrents before making their way back to where they hatched.

Kemp’s Ridleys have been found as far north as Nova Scotia, but this is by no means common.

When a female sea turtle lays a group of eggs, it is called a clutch. The temperature of sand is what determines the sex of the hatchlings: if the sand is below 85 degrees, it will turn out to be mostly male. Any hotter, and it will likely be female.

Why do Sea Turtles Strand?

Sea Turtles Cape Cod

This is sea turtle #45, one of the smaller turtles we have this year (and to date). This animal stranded on 11/22 at Duck Harbor in Wellfleet, was rescued by Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, received initial care at the New England Aquarium, and was transferred to the National Marine Life Center on Sunday, 11/27 for continued rehabilitation. He (or she – we don’t know at this size/age) weighs only 0.3 kg (0.7 lb).

As mentioned above, juveniles spend a few years following the Gulf Stream – just like the turtle in Finding Nemo. Sometimes, though, the stream flows a little further north, or sometimes the turtles take a wrong turn. In those cases, they can end up somewhere like Cape Cod Bay – that’s fine during the summer, but in the winter, these creatures need warmer water to survive. Once temperatures drop, they enter a state of severe hypothermia known as a cold stun.

Most often, it’s Kemp’s Ridleys which cold-stun on the Cape, but there have been increasing numbers of logger heads.

Organizations like the Marine Life Center work hard to coordinate the life-saving efforts which ultimately rehabilitate and re-release most of the hundreds of individuals who cold-stun each year.

Sea Turtles Cape Cod

This is our veterinarian, Dr. “Sea” Rogers Williams, giving an eye exam to sea turtle #46. This animal stranded 11/22 at Ryder Beach in Truro, was rescued by Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, received initial care at the New England Aquarium, and was transferred to the National Marine Life Center on Tuesday, 11/29 for continued rehabilitation. He (or she – we don’t know at this size/age) weighs 2.3 kg (5.1 lb).

If you find a turtle on the beach on Cape Cod, there is something wrong, no matter the season. Call the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary at 508-349-2615 ext. 6104, even if the turtle appears to be dead. Oftentimes they’re actually still alive, despite their appearance.

Threats to Sea Turtles

Aside from cold-stunning and stranding, both natural processes, there are many human-cause threats to sea turtles, too.

An increasing amount of plastic in the ocean takes its toll on the digestive tracts of these animals. The Marine Life Center’s Kathy Zagzebski said that recent efforts on Cape Cod towns to ban plastic bags are steps in the right direction, as far as eliminating ocean waste is concerned.

Larger plastic pieces can also work their way around turtles’ torsos, causing them to be immobilized. The same thing happens regularly with pot trap and fishing lines – common accoutrements of the robust fishing and shell fishing scene around Cape Cod.

The fact is that once turtles mature, there is very little that threatens them besides humans.

Importance of Conservation Efforts

As Zagzebski put it, sea turtles act as a “keystone species,” meaning they keep other creatures like jellyfish in check.

They are incredibly prone to human-caused problems like plastic pollution in the ocean, and as such are excellent “harbingers of the ocean.” If accounts of sea turtle plastic ingestion and entanglements continue to rise, which they have been doing, it is a serious comment on the state of our oceans – which on Cape Cod, is also a statement on public health and the economy.

By the Staff