Published on May 18, 2020

Sanctuary's Summer Sea Turtle Monitoring Program Gets Green Light

Leatherback seen off Lobster Beach in September 2019 © Nisa Mars Counter
Leatherback off Lobster Beach © Nisa Mars Counter

We're thrilled to report that Wellfleet Bay's program to study, rescue, document, and protect sea turtles will be fully operational this summer! We're continuously thankful to those who participate in, and support, this important conservation program. 

Sea Turtle Sightings

Four species of sea turtles feed in the nutrient-rich waters off New England in the summer—Leatherback, Loggerhead, Kemp's Ridley, and Green. And all of them are federally listed as either "endangered" or "threatened."

Wellfleet Bay's Sea Turtle Sightings website and hotline for boaters is up and running. The website provides photos, videos, and verbal descriptions of the different species to help boaters know what to look for in the water and how to identify the turtles they see. As boaters get out on the water, we encourage them to watch for and report sightings of sea turtles.

Reports can be made online at seaturtlesightings.org or by calling 1-888-SEA-TURT (1-888-732-8878).

Even though they're not actual counts of sea turtles, these reports are useful for showing trends of occurrence. Some research colleagues use these sighting reports to plan the timing of their on-water sea turtle research. This year, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) is using our opportunistic sea turtle sightings in their five-year review of the Commonwealth's "Ocean Management Plan."

Summer Strandings

Unfortunately, sea turtles face numerous threats off our coast. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the two main causes of sea turtle deaths on the Cape. Plastic ingestion is also a contributing factor, but this has been difficult to quantify.

Wellfleet Bay sea turtle staff are the federally-mandated responders to all sea turtle strandings in southeastern Massachusetts. We'll still be responding to all strandings reported this summer, albeit with some modifications for personal health and safety. Responses to strandings are important because they enable staff to document two critical types of information—the minimum number of sea turtles that die in waters off southeastern Massachusetts, and the cause of death whenever possible.

Last summer, sea turtle staff documented 20 dead Leatherbacks. Of those documented, we were able to respond in-person to 11 of them, which allowed staff to collect tissue samples, make detailed measurements, take photographs, and conduct full necropsies when possible. The remaining turtles were documented photographically by staff or others.

Nine of the 20 dead Leatherbacks recorded last summer showed clear evidence of severe vessel strikes.

How You Can Help

Whether it's for business or pleasure, if you're out on the water this summer please keep an eye out for visiting sea turtles and report any sightings as soon as possible!


Karen Dourdeville, Wellfleet Bay's sea turtle stranding coordinator, contributed to this article.