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Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Wellfleet

Cape Cod's 2023 Sea Turtle Season Wrap-Up

February 01, 2024

If we were to choose one word to describe the 2023 cold-stunned sea turtle rescue season it might be “unusual.”

Sea turtles are reptiles, and their internal body temperature is mostly regulated by the temperature of the water around them. As the water continues to cool, turtles become very lethargic and hypothermic, in a condition called “cold-stunned”, and they are unable to swim or eat. Onshore winds wash them onto beaches, mostly along the shore of Cape Cod Bay, where we rescue them for rehabilitation and release.  

This season, we experienced an early start, wild winds, and some surprising revelations along the way.  

Early Start to a Long Season

The season officially started on October 29 when a Kemp’s Ridley was found stranded in Eastham. This was an early start compared to the previous two years, which both started on November 17, but more in keeping with historical start dates.

Yet, similar to last year but unlike historical seasons, strandings and recovery of sea turtles lasted well into January largely due to water temperatures remaining warmer through the winter.

Wellfleet Bay staff preparing turtles in their boxes for transport

Wild Winds Influence Stranding Locations

Variable wind events throughout the season kept our staff and volunteers on their toes. Turtles were washing up in unusual locations due to the ever-changing wind direction and speed. This year we had an increase in the number of turtles stranding outside of Cape Cod Bay; particularly surprising were the numbers recovered on the South Shore in Hull (7), Hingham (2), and Weymouth (2). This increase is likely due to more persistent easterly and southerly winds that we experienced. 

Wellfleet Bay staffer holding a sea turtle in a towel
© Andrea Spence

Interesting Finds

We also recovered three tagged turtles. While we have found cold-stunned sea turtles on the Cape with Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags in previous years, it is not common.

Tagged turtles reveal fascinating information. For example, the live PIT-tagged Kemp’s Ridley retrieved from Eastham previously stranded in December 2022 on Corporation Beach in Dennis and released in St. John’s, Florida in March 2023.

Wellfleet Bay staffer scanning a tagged sea turtle

662 Sea Turtles Rescued in 2023

The 2023 final tally of rescued and recovered cold-stunned sea turtles is 662, of which 576 were critically endangered Kemp’s Ridleys. This year also featured the second largest Kemp’s Ridley in our records. The turtle was emaciated at the time of stranding but still weighed 42.7 lbs (19.4 kg) compared to the average cold-stunned ridley sizes of 5.4 lbs (2.4 kg). Adult Kemp’s Ridleys can reach an average of 70-100 pounds, so while this one was larger than what we normally see stranded here on the Cape, we believe it was a sub-adult. 

This year was our sixth busiest season on record. As always, it wouldn’t have been possible without our team of nearly 200 sea turtle volunteers, who walked beaches day and night, often for many days in a row, and drove turtles to the New England Aquarium and the National Marine Life Center for rehabilitation. We’re also grateful to members of the public who reported turtles they found on the beach and took the correct steps to protect them until our team arrived.

Once again, the volunteer pilots’ organization Turtles Fly 2 was critical to moving many of these animals to secondary rehab facilities where some turtles were well enough to be returned to warmer waters.

Kemp's Ridley576
Grand Total662
Yarmouth Port3
Grand Total662

How You Can Help

If you find a stranded sea turtle on Massachusetts’ beaches or have a sighting of a sea turtle in state waters, please follow these instructions. If you are interested in volunteering with next year’s sea turtle stranding rescue, please call us at 508-349-2615.

In addition, this yearly rescue effort wouldn't be possible without both monetary and in-kind donations from our supporters. We hope you'll consider making a donation online—gifts of any size are welcome and very much appreciated! To donate supplies, please call 508-349-2615 or email us.

Donate to Sea Turtle Rescues