Woman holding binoculars Join today and get outside at one of our 60+ wildlife sanctuaries.
Woman holding binoculars Join today and get outside at one of our 60+ wildlife sanctuaries.
boardwalk trail through a grassy meadow
Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Wellfleet

Protecting Sea Turtles on Cape Cod

When most people think of sea turtles, they imagine these marine reptiles enjoying the warm waters of the tropics. However, visitors and residents of the Cape may not realize that each summer hundreds of these turtles make their way into Massachusetts waters and the Gulf of Maine, which includes Cape Cod Bay. 

While sea turtles in the northwest Atlantic typically don’t nest north of the Carolinas, many sea turtles swim north to feed in our nutrient-rich waters, making good use of the plentiful crabs, jellyfish, and algae.

Sea turtles are difficult to spot, though boaters may be lucky enough to see one basking at the surface or coming up for a breath of air. If you spot a sea turtle during summer, please report it to seaturtlesightings.org. This sightings database helps federal and state researchers and regulators better understand and protect sea turtles. 

Volunteer inspecting sea turtle and nest © Esther Horvath

© Esther Horvath

Sea Turtle Species

The four species of sea turtles often spotted on Cape Cod include Kemp's Ridley, Loggerhead, Green, and Leatherback. All four are listed as either "Threatened" or "Endangered" under both the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. This means it's illegal to harass them, and you cannot transport them without a permit. Learn more about these sea turtles

Rescuing Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles

Sea turtles are reptiles, and their internal body temperature is mostly regulated by the temperature of the water around them. In the fall, as daylight shortens and water temperatures drop, sea turtles along our coasts begin to make their way south to warmer, sub-tropical and tropical waters. Some of these immature sea turtles become “trapped” by the hooked shape of Cape Cod, and others just don’t move south quickly enough. 

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. It's very important to rescue these stranded turtles as quickly as possible.

How We Help Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles

Fortunately, all is not lost for these sea turtles! Since 1979, Wellfleet Bay staff and an annual corps of over 200 trained volunteers have patrolled the beaches of Cape Cod, day and night, especially at high tide, on the lookout for cold-stunned turtles. 

Any turtle they find is rapidly transported to the sanctuary and then on to the New England Aquarium or the National Marine Life Center for evaluation and rehabilitation.

How You Can Help

If you are interested in volunteering with our 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

If You Find a Cold-Stunned Sea Turtle

Do not assume a turtle is dead and do not put it back in the water—turtles that appear lifeless are often still alive. Please note that it's illegal under both state and federal law to harass sea turtles or transport them without a permit.

If you come across a stranded sea turtle on the beach, please follow these simple steps:

  1. Do not put it back in the water.
  2. Carefully move the turtle above the high tide line. Never grab or hold the turtle by the head or flippers.
  3. Cover it completely with dry seaweed or wrack.
  4. Mark it with an obvious piece of debris—buoys, driftwood, or branches.
  5. Call the Wellfleet Bay hotline at 508-349-2615, Option 2.

Report Summer Sightings

For boaters, if you see a sea turtle during the summer, please report it to seaturtlesightings.org.