Ridley Rescuers

Wellfleet Bay Ridley Rescuers © Ann Prince, Mass Audubon

Volunteers at Wellfleet Bay

Every year in late fall and early winter, 50 intrepid Wellfleet Bay volunteers walk miles upon miles along the beaches of Cape Cod, on foggy frigid days and dark icy nights, bundled up to endure the chill. Their goal: to save the lives of sea turtles.

When water temperatures dip below 50 degrees, tides are high, and onshore winds are blowing, young turtles—mainly endangered Kemp’s ridleys—wash ashore; their lowered body temperatures rendering them unable to swim against the current. Caught in the “hook” of Cape Cod Bay, they have no way out.

This combination of conditions alerts the special volunteer corps that it’s time to embark on their single-minded search-and-rescue mission. They know the cold-stunned turtles that lie motionless on the shore have only one chance for recovery—to be located, transported, rehabilitated, and released. Rehabilitation occurs at the New England Aquarium facility in Quincy, to which volunteer drivers transport the turtles in cold cars so they won’t warm up too fast and die of shock.

While the Kemp’s ridley population is in recovery after near extinction, the species still needs help, so the turtle beachcombers take their task very seriously. “All of these volunteers are emotionally invested,” says Volunteer Coordinator Diane Silverstein.

While volunteer Bill Allan says they average one turtle per 10 walks, some group members have found two within a half-mile, so success pinpointing beached turtles varies greatly. “If I find one, I find three,” says Nancy Braun, who walks the desolate outer Cape beaches many hours through the night.

Janet Drohan says that she’s always motivated to go out patrolling for the dinner-plate-sized juvenile turtles when the forecast predicts turtle strandings. “You know you might be able to save a turtle that day,” she says. “And when you see one recovered and released, you know your effort has been worthwhile.”