For decades, volunteers in Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts have spent November and December trekking up and down the area’s beaches during high tide. They have a very important mission: finding stranded sea turtles that are so cold they can barely move, leaving them essentially defenseless on the shore.
The sea turtles that experience this are suffering from a form of hypothermia known as cold stunning. It can be caused when water temperatures rapidly decrease to below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), and turtles are unable to move to warmer waters.
Unlike mammals, which can regulate their body temperature and are considered endotherms, most turtles, which are reptiles, are ectotherms. Ectothermic animals use the temperature of the environment they’re in to regulate their temperature. Turtles, for instance, rely on the temperature of the water or basking in the sun to stay warm. Cold-stunned turtles become lethargic, experience decreased circulation, and slowing of other body functions. Consequently, cold-stunned turtles are more likely to be hit by boats, eaten by predators, become sick, or die as their bodies shut down.
In Cape Cod Bay, though, these animals have passionate and caring human allies in Mass Audubon, a statewide conservation organization, which uses staff and a volunteer corp to locate and rehabilitate stranded turtles in the area and then get them to safe warmer waters. These allies include Bob Prescott, who oversees the sea turtle program at the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the approximately 50 sanctuaries that are part of Mass Audubon. Prescott is the sanctuary’s director emeritus.
Earther recently talked to Prescott, who is very busy this time of the year rescuing turtles, and asked him to walk us through what happens at the turtle stranding events at Cape Cod Bay.