A group of rescuers freed an endangered leatherback sea turtle that was tangled in ropes from fishing gear in the Cape Cod Canal on Tuesday, officials said. The entanglement was the 10th in Massachusetts this year, an unusually high number that has rescuers anticipating a busy summer.
“Our fear is that we are starting off quite high, quite early, and the season that leatherback sea turtles seem to hang around here can stretch anywhere from June to October,” said Scott Landry, director of the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. “We’re looking at a long season ahead of us, and we would rather it not be so busy.”
During a normal year, Landry said, his team would respond to up to four entanglements by mid-July. The turtles swim to New England waters each summer to feed on invertebrates like jellyfish before heading to the Caribbean’s warmer climes to breed and nest, he said.
“It does appear that we have warmer-than-average sea temperatures this year, which could allow more turtles to get further north,” Landry said. “The waters surrounding Cape Cod — Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay — seem to be a really popular spot for them.”
On Tuesday, a group of boys playing on a jetty at the eastern mouth of the Cape Cod Canal saw something flailing desperately just offshore, Landry said. They could tell it was not a person in distress, but had no clue what else it might be.
The boys called authorities and got word to Landry’s team. They kept an eye on the animal until the five-member rescue team arrived.
“What we found was a five- to six-hundred-pound leatherback sea turtle caught in some buoy lines from fishing gear,” Landry said.
Once the specially trained rescuers arrived, they had to determine the best course of action to free the endangered marine reptile.
“The turtle obviously didn’t like the approach of our boat, so the animal kept going down on long dives,” he said. “When it returned to the surface, we threw a grappling hook into the lines around the turtle’s neck.”
As soon as the team had control of the nearly 6-foot turtle at the water’s surface, they implanted a digital tag into the animal’s shoulder, then “simply unwound the line around its neck and the turtle swam off very quickly,” Landry said.
The turtle appeared to be in good condition, Landry said, and did not require medical attention or treatment.
“Most likely [the entanglement] had just happened, so the turtle wasn’t horribly tangled and wasn’t harmed,” he said. “Because those boys called us so quickly and kept an eye on the turtle, it really helped the animal.”
Although Landry would prefer that his team not have tangled turtles to save, he said the rescues allow him and other scientists to learn more about the often-elusive creatures.
Leatherback turtles are among the largest living reptiles in the world and have been protected under the US Endangered Species Act since 1970 . They can be found across the world but are threatened by habitat destruction, vessel strikes, and entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris, according to the center.